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In The Here And Now

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Cold. Blistering unrelenting cold.

He couldn ’t breath, couldn’t see, couldn’t move.

They’re pulling me, they have a mission for me for the soldier.” The thought cut through the din with amazing sharpness and clarity.

His limbs tingled, so cold they felt like they were on fire. His left shoulder felt lighter.

My Arm. The Arm. Hydra had taken the Arm.” Was his next thought. They’d taken it, for punishment or humiliation, he didn’t know, but they’d reattach it. This was there was of reminding him who they were, of who the soldier belonged to.

He tried to breathe but was met with crushing, freezing cold. He was drowning like he was under a frozen lake. His lungs ached, and any moment he ’d suffocate. He gasped for air, breaking the surface of the invisible frozen lake of cryo and into the waking world. He gulped down air, his chest heaving, vision blurring in and out of focus, his limbs burned.

Voices warbled far away, they were speaking to him. He grasped helplessly at the words, trying to decipher their meaning. What did they want? Oh God, if he didn ’t respond they’d punish him, they’d hurt him.

Bucky, Bucky are you with us?” A voice broke through the fog.

Steve?” He recognized that voice, and he could feel his face being cupped by two very warm, strong, but gentle hands.

I’m right here, Buck. You’re all right. I’ve got you.” Steve’s voice floated in through the fog.

Steve?” He managed again, with a little more strength.

I’m here Buck, I’m not going anywhere.”

Bucky exhaled, blinking. The hot Wakandan afternoon sun was bearing down on him, but he didn’t mind the heat, he’d had enough cold to last a lifetime.

He glanced around at the rolling fields, his small herd grazed contentedly not too far away. The grass was tall and yellow from the heat and sun. The skies were blue and cloudless, making the horizon stretch one for miles where the snow-capped mountains loomed overhead, and the lush jungles tinged the landscape with hues of greens. It was a scene worthy of poets or painters, of which he was neither.

Did Steve still paint and draw? He couldn’t help but wonder. He could remember the mess of papers and crushed graphite strewn across the floor, the countless drawings and redrawing that Steve had done. He remembered the pennies scraped together to afford more paper and pencils, and the smile that the small gift had brought to Steve’s drawn face as he lay recovering from some illness or another.

No, he wouldn’t have had much time to draw. Bucky shook his head and looked down at the journal spread across his lap.

He’d never had much of a mind for drawing or painting, or anything like that. That had always been Steve’s particular gift. He hadn’t even been much of a poet either. He had penned a few lines of poetry as a lovesick teen, though he’d forbidden Steve from letting anyone else see, and well, the girls he’d written poems to weren’t exactly around anymore to share what they’d read.

Bucky exhaled, examining the bright white crisp pages, still blank, and untouched. The pages crackled with potential, of everything he could say, might say, everything that he should say. He held the pen poised, ready to make its first marks. What was there to say? What would be the best way to summarize what had happened since he’d been pulled from cryo-stasis? What was there to say now that he was a free man, cured, and now able to live his life? And If he really was a free man, then why didn’t he feel like it?

It had been about a month and a half since Princess Shuri had pulled him from cryo and a month since he’d moved to a remote goat village in the Wakandan countryside.

The village had agreed to take him in. Omondi, the village elder, had pledged to keep an eye on him, give him something to do, and make him a member of the community. They called him the White Wolf. Not exactly the most subtle of honorifics, being the only white man in an African country, but it did mean that he was apart of their community, apart of Wakanda.

They’d given him a little hut, on the edge of the village, and a small heard of goats to look after, in addition to helping Omondi bag and distribute feed to the nearby villages. It was quiet, peaceful, and it had given him a lot of time and space to try and think through everything that had happened since June and since the fall in 1945.

While he’d thought about it, he hadn’t been brave, or stupid, enough to ask The King if there was any way he could get his Journals back from his apartment in Romania. It was why he’d asked The Princess for the journal and pen. Yet, he still couldn’t bring himself to start to write. There had been so much in his first one, so much research, so much time. The task of recreating that journal from scratch was daunting. Could he re-live the anguish and the pain that had forged the other one? The hours upon hours spent, pouring over documents and starring at names, wracking his brain for any detail or hint of what his life had been, and doing his best to forget the blood that had been spilled by his hand.

The wind stirred, blowing the grass and rustling the trees. Shaking his head, he closed the journal with an irritated snap and stowed the pen and journal away in his satchel.

He’d have time later to write, it would come to him. It wasn’t as though he didn’t have the time. He had all the time in the world. He hadn’t received many visitors, other than the local children who liked to watch him work. Communication with Steve had been sparse as well. While he’d been there when Bucky had been pulled from Cryo, he’d been called away while Bucky had still been in the middle of tests and scans. They’d said goodbye and Steve had promised he’d be back as soon as he could, but since then he hadn’t heard anything else out of Steve.

It didn’t surprise Bucky, the man was on the run, while also trying to keep acting as a de-facto Avenger. That took a lot of time and energy. Steve had his hands full without having to deal with him.

Bucky stopped, turning at the sound of approaching footsteps, and immediately found the Princess Shuri followed by none other than Steve Rogers approaching where he was sitting.

“Hey, white boy! I come bearing gifts!” The Princess called, waving as they continued toward him. “Gift!” She amended, motioning with her head to Steve. “I would’ve called to warn you, but you never wear the Kimoyo Bracelet I gave you.”

“I don’t like the idea of being tracked," Bucky answered dryly as he rose to his feet and turned to face them squarely. Given my history. He added silently. “But I appreciate the personal delivery.”

“Well, since he’s never been out this way before, figured we didn’t want him getting eaten by panthers before he could make it to you.”

“Very thoughtful.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky could see Steve following their exchange like he was watching a tennis match, his gaze moving intently back and forth, uncertainly written on his expression. He looked grave, his features pinched, though most of his face was hidden behind the beginnings of an ample beard.

“Well, my job is done. Mr. Rogers, I have helped you to your Mr. Barnes, I will let you two get properly reacquainted.” Princess Shuri said lightly, “Are we still on for our appointment at the end of the week?” She asked as she turned to walk back down the path they’d come.

“Of course. Unless something changes.”

“Unless something changes.” She echoed. “See you later, white boy.” She called before walking away and down the path out of sight.

It was only when the princess had gone that Bucky turned to Steve. Beyond looking grave, Steve looked beaten up and exhausted. He was still wearing his Captain America Uniform, though much of the adornment had been removed and spray painted over. While he bore no dark rings or sunken features, Bucky could see other signs of exhaustion. A certain weariness in the way that he carried himself from his hunched shoulders to the way he just let his arms hang beside him.

“How you been Buck?” Steve asked. Bucky couldn’t help but not the slightest edge of tension in his voice, as the other man surveyed him. Like he was trying to read him like he was trying to figure out where he stood before he made a wrong move.

Because you flinched.

Bucky hadn’t meant to. He’d still been in a post cryo fog. Steve had been hovering, warmth and concern radiating off him in waves. Then he’d put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. Nothing more, nothing less, but he’d flinched, pulling away from Steve’s touch.

He’d looked up to see pain in Steve’s eyes and chiseled into the grit of his jaw.

Bucky had managed an apology, but it had been shortly after that Steve had gotten the urgent call.

I will let you two get properly reacquainted.

The Princess knew something was up, of course the Princess knew, she’d been prodding around in his brain. She probably knew more about him than he did at the moment.

So what could he tell Steve? What should he tell Steve? That he was still having nightmares and waking up in cold sweats? That he could remember in vivid details the color and shape of their couch back in Brooklyn in addition to the hundreds of deaths he’d been a party to? What would put his mind at ease without completely lying about the reality of the situation? He was him, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant still.

“Better.” He managed, surveying Steve as carefully as he was surveying him. “Would you like to sit down?”

“Yeah. Sure.” Steve nodded.

They sunk down on the ground, in the little patch of grass that Bucky had flattened throughout the afternoon. His bag and water skin were arranged atop a blanket woven with blue and black designs, a red stripe accenting the pattern. From the nest he’d made, Bucky could see his small herd of goats and the Wakandan children who were playing some distance away. Steve sat down carefully as if he was afraid he might break something. His entire being looked tightly coiled and ready to snap as he sat cross-legged on the blanket beside him.

Bucky cracked a small smile, trying to put Steve at ease. Not only that, it had been a long time since they’d been alone together, and after everything that had happened, they were fortunate to get this chance. He was happy to see Steve. He’d thought about the man a lot while he was on the run and almost every day since he’d been pulled out of cryo. If he could dream in cryo, he would’ve probably had seen him in his dreams while he was under too. Now, he was sitting here next to him, there was so much to say, and little indication of where they should begin.

“I’m sorry. I tried to get away sooner.” Steve began after a moment.

There was a twinge of guilt in Bucky’s stomach at Steve’s word. He should be out there, with Steve and the others. He’d helped get them into this mess, he should be out there trying to make it right. “You haven’t missed much.” He shrugged as casually as he could manage with only one arm. “Mostly scans, tests, and—” He was cut off by the sound of a bleating goat.

“Goats?” Steve supplied with an amused smirk.

“Yeah. Goats.” Bucky suppressed a wince, waiting for the, “Really Buck? You Goats?” comment that was going to come. He’d spent most of his life in the city, and the most he’d been around farm animals was likely the two weeks he’d spent on Last Chance Ranch. He wasn’t necessarily predisposed to looking after farm animals, never mind in the middle of nowhere.

“The Princess told me she moved you out here while your brain is healing. Minimizing stimuli.” Steve continued.

“She told me she kept you up to date on all news while I was under.”

“Yeah. She did.” Steve paused, giving him a once over. “It’s good to see you up and walking around again.”

“Yeah. It’s good to be upright.” He agreed.

What Steve had failed to mention was that he’d been an absolute wreck the entire time he’d been under and that she’d kept him up to date so that he would stop checking in every few hours. In Steve’s defense, he couldn’t blame the man, exactly. He understood why the man would be nervous about the whole thing. Yet the picture the Princess had painted for him in the weeks that followed “The Great Thaw Out” as she’d put it, was not a pretty one. Which begged the question of how the rest of the group was doing.

“How’s Wilson?” He asked.

“Sam’s good," Steve answered shortly.

“That’s good.”

That had been one thing he and Steve had managed to talk about in his brief lucid moment before Steve had been called away. Shortly after he’d been put under, Steve had sprung Wilson and Maximoff, while Scott and Clint had taken a plea deal. Romanoff was still MIA. It was a small consolation of sorts, knowing that they were safe, or as safe as anyone could be while on the run, but it still didn’t completely curb the guilt that he felt for being responsible for getting them into this mess in the first place.

There was a long pause before Steve spoke again. “He does ask about you. Wants to know how you’re doing.” He said slowly.

Of course he does. Bucky wasn’t sure about how he felt about that. After all, he had tried to kill the man three times and had gotten him into life-threatening situations more than he cared to think about. They were no longer enemies, but after everything, Bucky felt that Wilson’s kindness was unwarranted and undeserved. “It’s good to know you have someone like him, watching your back," Bucky said, lamely. What else was there to say? Sorry that I tried to kill your partner, like three times? Bucky didn’t foresee that having the desired effect.

“I don’t deserve him. Especially after everything I’ve put him through.”

Bucky snorted, “No. You don’t. But I am glad you have someone like him.”

Steve surveyed him carefully before proceeding. “How much do you remember about...about us?”

Ah. Here we go. This was what Steve had been trying to get at, trying to find a way to bring up ever since...well ever since Bucharest. It was something he’d also been puzzling through and trying to get a handle on. He knew what they were, or what they’d been, what was really the problem was, could he return to that?

“A lot, most of it now, I think.” he paused. “You and Wilson...are you...I mean.” Bucky struggled to find the right words. “Stepping out..together?” It sounded so old fashioned, even as the words crossed his lips and reached his ears. If he’d been inclined to it, he would’ve been embarrassed for himself. But the words had gotten their point across, and that was really all that mattered.

“Yeah.” Steve nodded.

“I’m glad.”

“Buck, it doesn’t mean—”

“I’ve been gone a long time, Steve.” Bucky cut him off. “I’m glad for you, and for Sam. Even if the guy has zero sense of self perseveration, I’m glad you’ve got someone like him. Someone stable.

It still didn’t answer Steve’s unspoken question, “what about us?” Bucky could still see Steve’s expression when he had pulled away from his touch. It was burned, seared into his memory, and it still stung, for both of them.

Ultimately, this wasn’t about Wilson. Steve being in a relationship with Sam didn’t change anything between them. Back before the fall, before life had made things even more messy and complicated than it already was, they’d had an understanding. They had always possessed the capacity to love more than one person, and so it was understood they would date and likely marry other people, but that they would love each other no matter what. In a small way, Bucky was relieved that for Steve, at the very least, that hadn’t changed.

This was about him, what he wanted, and what he was capable of. It really didn’t matter what he wanted. At the moment, it was about what needed to happen. He didn’t know if he was going to wake up the same person he went to sleep as if he woke up at all. After everything that had happened, he didn’t know who he was or who he wanted to be, never mind what type of person he’d be in a relationship. He was Bucky Barnes, but he wasn’t the Bucky who had fallen from the train. He wasn’t what Steve needed right now, there was no way he could be.

“I’m glad you have Wilson.” He said.

But what did he have? Sure he had Steve. And Steve would be more than happy to pick up right where they’d left off. But he couldn’t just pick back up where they’d left off. He was different, and he wasn’t entirely sure that Steve would take him as he was now.

Bucky wanted Steve to hold him. He wanted to be held, he wanted Steve to tell him that things were going to be okay. But he couldn’t, not when he couldn’t trust himself not to flinch, not to pull away, and it would be even harder to bear the look of pain he’d cause on Steve’s face.

After a moment, Steve nodded but said nothing, as both of them searched for something to say.

How long had they been together? What did Wilson think about all of this bullshit with him, Hydra, and the UN bombings? Had Steve met Wilson’s Family? What were they like? Had Steve taken Wilson to meet Carter before she’d passed away? Had Wilson met Becca? They’d been practically family back before the war, and thick as thieves when it came to getting him into trouble, it would only make sense if Steve had sought out Becca’s blessing with his new beau. “Did you take Wilson over to meet my Sister?” Bucky asked.

“I did.” Steve nodded. “She liked Sam.”

Liked. Past tense. They glanced at one another, in the long pregnant silence, as mutual looks of grief and sorrow passed between them.

“I’m sorry Buck—”

 “We’ve both lost people, Steve.” He cut him off. There was nothing more that needed to be said. He’d lost Becca recently, and Steve had lost Carter. No amount of condolences was going to touch the pain they both felt.

He’d read about Carter’s passing, shortly before everything had happened with the UN and his escape attempt from Bucharest. He couldn’t imagine the pain that Steve was feeling. Sure, to him, Becca had been a connection to a past, his past, a time of innocence, a time before the bloodshed, and war, and time had had its way with him. But for Steve, Bucky had a feeling that Carter meant something slightly different. Carter was less about what had been, and more about what could’ve been. Which Bucky, for his part, would argue was worse. Becca had lived a full life: she’d gotten an education, she’d traveled, started a family and created a family of her own, she’d been an activist, and an all around amazing human being. While Bucky had his regrets, he couldn’t say that he regretted the type of person that Becca had become, even in his absence. She’d lived her life, and he was glad for that.,

However, for Steve, Carter had been the last link to what could have been, the reminder of what he’d lost. The chance at a normal life. Carter was the representation of every hope, every dream, every past and future that should have been that could now never be. That Steve could never have. More so than even that, Carter had seen Steve and loved Steve as Bucky had loved Steve. Not as Captain America, war hero and now Avenger. No, Carter had seen and loved Steve, the kid from Brooklyn, small, fragile, asthmatic, too dumb to run away from a fight. That was worth something, that was worth everything. To be loved as the person you are, rather than the person people expected you to be, the person the world had transformed you into.

Bucky’s thoughts drifted back to the obituary photograph, at the smiling faces, preserved in time. A family and a life that he hadn’t been able to participate in. Yet he felt so intimately attached to them. Then, his thoughts turned to Ramirez. She had been in that photograph, enjoying and partaking in a life and in a moment that by all rights should’ve been his. He wanted to hate her, but he couldn’t. She hadn’t chosen that, she hadn’t chosen to have her life ripped away from her violently. She was a victim just like the rest of them, more so than the rest of them even.

He looked over at Steve, he’d turned his eyes to the grassland, surveying the herd of goats, and watching the children as they laughed and played their games. Steve hadn’t mentioned anything about Ramirez, at all, not during their flight between Berlin and Siberia, not between Siberia and Wakanda, and not before or after he’d been in cryo. What was she to Steve? Bucky had heard Wilson and Steve whispering, trying to get ahold of her during the few hours they’d had before the brawl at the airport. But since then, Steve hadn’t said anything. He needed to know. Needed confirmation that he wasn’t imagining it, that she was alive, and she was missing.

“You haven’t found her yet, have you?” He asked, absently.

“What?” Steve turned his head so fast, Bucky was almost sure he’d have snapped his neck if not for the serum.

Steve’s eyes searched him, his expression bent in equal parts surprise and pain. Panic surged in the pit of Bucky’s stomach. He could always play it off, ask about Romanoff, ask about anything other than Ramirez. No. He’d asked, and he wanted answers. This was the only way forward. “Wilson’s friend, Ramirez."

“How’d-”

“Becca’s obituary photo," Bucky explained shortly.

Steve’s mouth formed a silent, “Oh."

“You haven’t found her, have you?” He repeated.

Steve looked down at the ground, shaking his head.

“She was helping you track me down.”

“Yeah.” He sighed, combing his hands through his hair.

Becca, what did she tell Becca? Bucky wanted to scream, but he clamped down on the urge, shoving it away. There were other things at stake here. Bigger things at stake.

“I should never have gotten her involved in all of this," Steve said as he rubbed his face with his hands.

You’re just now figuring this out? He would’ve asked, but he didn’t. Steve looked horrible already, and if blame were to be laid at anyone’s feet, it wouldn’t be Steve’s, it would be his.

Blame, however, wasn’t going to get anything done. Blame and guilt weren’t going to fix this problem, and it was a problem. A HUGE problem. Bucky’s mind kicked into gear, pulling out the journal and pen from his satchel he started writing. ‘M. Ramirez, Person of interest, connections to S. Rogers, S. Wilson, and R. Romanoff, information about B. Barnes,’ He paused. ‘In journal collected as evidence in Romania.’ Fuck. She was in trouble. Bucky looked up at Steve, “How much does she know?”

Steve, who’d been watching him write, met his gaze and the expression on his face spoke volumes. He didn’t even need to say anything for Bucky to know the answer. A Lot. Why had Steve done that? Why had he allowed her to immerse herself in this world? Well, Steve’s reaction made sense now, at the very least.

“Could she compromise us?” It was a cold question, a self-interested question, but a necessary one.

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Steve, could she compromise us?” Bucky asked, his voice taking on a harsher tone than he’d meant it to.

“I don’t know," Steve said after a tense moment. “Probably. Yes. Romanoff would know more about it than I would.”

Of course she would. Romanoff had probably trained her up, taught her how to survive for when things went sideways. Natasha had never liked an unfair fight, and Ramirez versus the entire international intelligence community was not exactly even odds.

Bucky looked Steve over. He could see the anguish and frustration in Steve’s features, from the grit in his jaw to the tension in his shoulders and back. Steve felt personally responsible for what had happened to this woman. For his part, Bucky did too. Most of this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t stumbled onto her ranch. But that wasn’t the source of Steve’s pain. It wasn’t the initial injury, the initial hurt, the initial reason that she was involved in all of this, it was what had transpired the two years after Last Chance that was putting her in danger now. It was putting them all in danger. If someone got ahold of her, she could likely be pumped for information or used to lure Wilson and the others out of hiding. Steve was a loyal person, to a fault, and it seemed that Wilson was the same way. She would be a useful bargaining chip to anyone who knew how to apply the right pressure.

“Where have you tried looking?” Bucky asked.

“We know she crossed the border, but we haven’t been able to find anything else.” Steve shook his head. “We haven’t been able to do much since we’ve been on the run.”

“That’s understandable.” Bucky nodded.

“How’d you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Stay on the run for that long?”

What was there to say? It hadn’t been fun or comfortable. It had been about survival, about keeping out of enemy hands, including Steve’s. “Well, I wasn’t hauling around extra people and a quinjet, Steve. That tends to attract a lot of attention.” He tried to play it off for a laugh but cleared his throat when he saw Steve’s expression. “It’s about making your footprint small, wherever you go. It’s about having contingencies, and knowing when to move and when to stay put. It’s a skill. It takes practice.” He paused.

Romanoff must have helped her, must have trained her up. It was the only explanation. If Steve and the others couldn’t find Romanoff, he was the next best chance they had at finding Ramirez. But first, he had to know.

“The woman. Ramirez, was she, I mean where she and Becca friends?” He managed after a moment. Steve’s answer wouldn’t change anything, he was still going to help him find her. She had risked her neck for him, and now was in trouble because of him, but he needed to know what kind of person Ramirez was, beyond his own recollection, and what type of person his sister had thought she was.

“Yeah. They were.” Steve nodded. “They got close. Becca loved Ramirez. Ramirez took Becca’s death hard.” He chuckled sourly, shaking his head, wincing, “really hard.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, pulling at some of the grass just beyond the border of the blanket. There was a story there, a story they didn’t have time for at the moment, but perhaps if they managed to find and rescue Ramirez he’d get to hear it. He was going to find Ramirez for Steve, and for Becca, and because this wasn’t just about a single person. This was someone who could compromise Steve, Wilson, and expose him and the Wakandans. She wasn’t just someone who knew a lot about him, this wasn’t his sister’s friend or the woman who’d sheltered and protected him, right now she was a threat. He glanced up at Steve. Of course, that wasn’t how Steve saw it, but perhaps he should.

“Steve. I’m going to help you find Ramirez.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Yes. I do.” Bucky said shortly. “Romanoff was your best chance at finding Ramirez, but I’m your next best option.” Steve opened his mouth to say something, but Bucky charged on. “You may not want to hear this, Steve, but she’s worth more alive than dead.” He faltered a moment at Steve’s expression. He didn’t regret saying it, it needed to be said. “She’s dangerous, Steve.” He continued. “If Ross or anyone else gets their hands on her, this will end badly. For you, for me, for Sam, for the Wakand-” He stopped. “Fuck.”

“What?”

“Have you told the King about Ramirez?”

“No? Why?”

Bucky hesitated. How best to say what needed to be said. “While I was on the run, I kept a journal.” He began haltingly, “It was the one in my apartment, in Bucharest.” Bucky exhaled slowly before continuing. “It had pages on Ramirez. What I remembered about Last Chance Ranch and about her. If the UN collected that journal as evidence for the bombings, then they already know about Ramirez and the implications of aiding and abetting a known international war criminal and fugitive. She’s a threat to Wakandan national security.”

Steve nodded, rising to his feet. “I need to go.”

Bucky rose as well. “I’m going with you.”

“No.” Steve shook his head. “I can’t ask you to get involved in all of this.”

“I wasn’t asking permission, Steve," Bucky replied shortly. Pausing, he added, “She’s in trouble because of me. It’s the least I can do.”

“She isn’t in trouble because of you, Bucky.”

“It doesn’t matter who’s at fault,” Bucky’s voice was sharper than he meant it to be. He took a deep breath and shook his head. “She helped me, and it cost her everything. If I don’t help. What does her sacrifice mean?” It sounded more noble that it felt, but it was the truth.

If he didn’t help now, that was a choice, that was a choice he would have to live with. This was his fault, and it would be part of making things right. Regardless of blame, he would bear some of the responsibility for what happened to Ramirez.

“Okay.”

“I’ll get the kids to look after the Goats, we’ll go back to my place, and I’ll call ahead to the Princess. You should get a hold of Wilson, whatever intel you have on Ramirez will be useful and be a useful peace offering.”

“Peace offering?” Steve echoed.

“They’re not going to be pleased that Ramirez has been walking around with all that information in her head, never mind that it could compromise and put Wakanda at risk.”

“Right.”

They worked quickly, and after dropping off the blanket and making a few calls, they made their way to the capital in silence.

It wasn’t a far walk, Wakanda as a country wasn’t huge, and within half an hour they were across the prairie, and the massive skyscrapers of the capital rose before them. They wound through the busy streets receiving plenty of double-takes and stares. It was loud and crowded, and it put Bucky on edge. People mercifully created a path for them as they walked, but he could feel his heart pounding in his throat, and his eyes swiveled back and forth, prepared for just about anything. The princess had said that a low stimuli environment would be good for him while his brain repaired itself, but he had to admit, he really did appreciate the isolation of his little hut in the countryside, and was eager to return to it. However, despite his discomfort, they had to take care of this one thing, and then perhaps he could find a more restful peace amongst the goats in the grass.

As approached the front steps of the palace they were met by no less than The King, The Princess, The General, and several Dora and War Dogs Bucky didn’t know, who wordlessly ushered them inside an office. It was high above the city, and Bucky could see the comings and goings down in the city below, and well out to the plains and mountains that created the border of the small country. The Doras and the War dogs filed in, The General closing the door behind her with a snap.

“Please, take a seat.” T’Challa motioned to the squat chairs around a low table. It had a diorama of Birnin Zana, the Capitol of Wakanda, but Bucky was almost positive that it could be configured to suit the needs of whatever the King needed.

The King sunk down into his chair at the head of the table, and Steve followed and The princess followed. Bucky hesitated, watching the General for his cue, she nodded, pointing with her chin to a seat. He nodded in response, and did as quietly instructed, before she also sat down, laying her spear across her lap. The War Dogs and other Doras remained standing, providing more than enough in the way of security should he or Steve decide to do anything they didn’t like.

“So, what is it you have to tell us?” T’Challa inquired pleasantly. His cat like eyes surveying them cooly.

Steve glanced at Bucky, who nodded, silently urging him to proceed. You know more than I do.

Steve took a deep breath before he addressed the King’s quiet, piercing gaze. “Magdalene Ramirez, a civilian operative working with Samuel Wilson and myself to track down James Barnes over the last two years went missing shortly before the bombing at the UN in Vienna June 22, 2016. Since her disappearance, we have, thus far, been unsuccessful in our attempts to make contact with her. We have reason to believe she possesses sensitive information that could potentially compromise,” Steve faltered, taking another deep breath charged on. “We have reason to believe she has information that could compromise Wakandan security, should she be found and interrogated by hostile parties.”

Hostile parties, yeah that’s certainly one way to say anyone and everyone who might want to know where the Winter Soldier ended up. Bucky couldn’t help but think, as he watched the young Monarch’s expression closely.

For his part, T’Challa’s expression gave away nothing, and after a moment, he spoke. “This woman, Magdalene Ramirez, is she a personal friend of yours?”

“Yes.”

T'Challa glanced over at the general before Okoye turned her eyes to Steve. “Why was this not brought to our attention before?” 

“Because he didn’t know she was mentioned in the property seized by the UN, and I didn’t know she was missing.” Bucky cut in, addressing The General directly.

“When Barnes brought this to my attention, he immediately recommend that I advise you to the situation and turn overall intel we’ve collected thus far in our search for her," Steve said shortly, his attention now turned to the General.

 The glower they shared would’ve been enough to cut diamonds, vibranium, or anything else for that matter. But Okoye wasn’t wrong. Steve should’ve said something, but then Steve hadn’t known that she was in Bucky’s journal either. So once again, this all came back to him.

“I understand your concern, General, but what’s past is past. Barnes and Rogers are trying to make amends for their previous inaction.” T’Challa interceded, graciously. “Would you be averse to presenting that intel for us now, Captain?”

“Not at all.”

Steve flicked the data file from the Kimoyo bracelet Bucky had let him borrow, out into the center of the room and the scant traces that they’d found of her circled just over their heads in flickering purplish-blue holograms. Bucky grimaced. He’d honestly seen better intel written on the back of a napkin in lipstick. But then again, Wilson and Steve weren’t spies, they were soldiers, and had taken a soldier’s approach to try to find Ramirez.

A cell phone taped to the undercarriage of a semi, clothes waded up and thrown into the bottom of a trash can at a rest stop, bus tickets, plane ticks, receipts, a passport scan at the U.S. Mexico border. There was also her banking statements, where there were charges for a Bus ticket from Abilene to Mexico City. Then she’d bought a bus ticket for a few days later leaving from Mexico City to Cozumel. There was a receipt for a cruise and a booking confirmation number at an all-expenses-paid resort. She’d even used Groupon. There were also consistent withdraws of five-hundred dollars dating back months.

It was a smokescreen, an impressive and elaborate smokescreen, but hastily and inexpertly executed. The purchases were made to look like she was headed in a particular direction. Bucky knew without asking that Steve and Sam had checked up on every one of them. It was the ATM withdraws that intrigued Bucky.

Ramirez had been making ATM withdraws of about five-hundred bucks a week for at least six months before her disappearance. She’d been trying to make it look random. She’d draw it on different days in different amounts, from different ATMs but it came out to the same amount every week.

She’d been creating a cache. About twelve-thousand dollars worth. Smart. The most she could’ve crossed the border with without declaring it was ten grand, and that would be pushing it.

She knew she was going to disappear, she was planning on disappearing. The thought hit Bucky with such force he almost had to sit back in his seat. Okay, so she went to ground, meaning she didn’t want to be found. So what was the leading theory here?

She’d be somewhere densely populated, where she could blend in. Somewhere she knows the terrain and can quietly cultivate and navigate a cover. She probably has fake identification, and probably has changed her appearance somewhat. Nothing too drastic, nothing that would draw too much attention, but enough to throw people off. Her hand was crushed meaning surgery scars, identifiable marks so she’d be somewhere she could either cover-up or that they would be inconsequential.

He stopped himself, glancing around the darkened room at the faces looking up at the intel that Steve had gathered. The King, The General, the Doras, the War Dogs, all of them had cool, nearly placid expressions as they surveyed the information in front of them, what they were thinking Bucky couldn’t rightly say. The Princess, by comparison, was an open book. It wasn’t so much any one thing as a combination of everything. The young woman sat at the edge of her seat, her hands working a holographic keyboard, her eyes darting between her screen and the intel overhead. She was always multi-tasking, but the way her jaw was set, and the intensity of her expression, something else was going on here.

They knew. They knew about Ramirez and likely knew where she was.

Looking away from the Princess, he found that the King had his eyes on him. Was he watching him for a reaction? Was he trying to see what he and Steve knew before he played his hand? Bucky didn’t know. Looking away and then back up, he tried to think through what the King must be thinking. What did the sovereign of a nation think about shit like this? He thought strategically, and he probably was thinking two or three moved ahead. If he knew about Ramirez, then he also probably knew where she was. Now the next step would be determining what would they do with her. Leave her in place under Wakandan surveillance, pull her from her hiding spot, or eliminate the risk entirely. No option was without its faults, but some options created more issues than others.

“Thank you, Captain, I think that’s more than enough,” T’Challa said, motioning for the lights to come up.

The lights came up, the windows undimmed, and Steve looked slightly taken aback as the images disappeared from view.

“Tell me.” T’Challa began slowly. “Does the Llorona Network mean anything to you?”

Steve frowned, shaking his head. “I know the story of La Llorona, it’s a Mexican folk legend.” He paused, glancing around the table. “I don’t quite follow.”

T’Challa exchanged glances with select people in the room before turning back to the table and flicking open a data file from his Kimoyo bracelet. Ramirez’s face projected into the center of the room, an array of documents, maps, and videos appeared beside it. In several of the pictures and videos, she was wearing a platinum wig, but it was very clearly her.

So she didn’t want to be found.

“We have been monitoring the situation since Berlin, and doing our best to keep other interested parties off her trail, including you and Mr. Wilson, particularly after she became embedded in the Llorona network.”

“Ramirez is involved in the Llorona Network? What is that?”

T’Challa motioned to one of the War Dogs, who stepped forward. She was a younger woman, probably in her early 30s, but moved with the assurance of someone trained to kill, and comfortable in her own skin. She looked as though she’d been called from leisure time, as she was wearing a bright green jumpsuit printed with the pattern of the River Tribe. Her eyes were bright and sharp as they surveyed the room, falling briefly on him and then on Steve. “This is Nakia, head of international intelligence and outreach. Tell Captain Rogers what you’ve found.”  

“La Llorona Network is an anti-trafficking network. Compromised of mostly older women, mothers, and grandmothers, they’ve been disrupting the cartel’s trafficking operations for almost five years now.” Nakia explained, moving around and manipulating different files. “Our operatives working within the network claim Ramirez has been actively involved for about two months. At first, we thought she was working cooperatively with vigilante agents outside the network, but have now been able to ascertain that she is working as a solo operative within the Network.” Nakia paused. “There are are a number of operations ongoing throughout the Network at any given time, but we have received intel that indicates the network is going to make a large move against the cartels in the next 24-48 hours.”

Steve glanced between Nakia, The King, and The General. “Is there any way to extract her before then?”

T’Challa looked pointedly at Nakia who shook her head. “It’s more complicated than that. We believe Ramirez has been positively identified by American agents as well, and they are planning on extracting her during The Network’s next action. If we extract her from the Network now, we risk not only her but everyone in the network.”

Steve exhaled, nodding, “Okay, so what’s our move?”

“You won’t be doing anything, Captain.” T’Challa said shortly, Steve opened his mouth to protest, but T’Challa continued, “As you said, this is a threat to Wakandan security. We will do everything in our power to extract Ms. Ramirez during planned action. I will also grant Ms. Ramirez asylum within my countries borders until that time when her protection is no longer needed. No further action on your part is desired or needed.”

Steve grit his jaw and Bucky was almost positive he was going to have to keep Steve from lunging over the table at the young monarch. Though Bucky knew that T’Challa was more than capable of holding his own against Steve, he really didn’t need another international incident on his hand.

“Understood," Steve said tersely.

“Good," T’Challa said, before leveling his gaze at Bucky. “Go back to the countryside, look after your goats, Mr. Barnes, we will update you as necessary," T’Challa rose to his feet.

That was a dismissal if ever Bucky had heard one, but they were guests in this country. But he wasn’t done. And something possessed him to push his luck a little further. “Can we inform Wilson that his friend has been located?”

“You may.” T’Challa nodded, turning to go.

“Out of curiosity, where was she?” Bucky’s question stopped the monarch, who turned back to him.

“Why?” He asked, arching a graceful eyebrow.

“Ramirez is from west Texas, Midland-Odessa area, she’d go somewhere she was familiar, where she’d blend in, and that was densely populated. She wasn’t looking for rescue, but instead to disappear or go to ground.” T’Challa and his advisors remained blank-faced, but Bucky charged on. He had to know if he was right. “She’s in Ciudad Juarez.”

“That is a fascinating theory, Mr. Barnes," T’Challa replied, barely hiding a look of amusement. “Have a good rest of your afternoon.”

Bucky nodded, watching as the King and his entourage left the briefing room, Shuri being the last, cast a fleeting glance over her shoulder back at them. He could feel Steve coiled up beside him, whether it was anger or frustration or a good combination of both, Bucky didn’t know, but he did know that there was nothing further to be done.

“Come on, Steve," Bucky said gently. “The King said he’d keep us updated. I need to get back to my goats, and you need to call Wilson to let him know what’s going on.”

Steve nodded, wordlessly following him from the briefing room.

So she’s in Juarez working against the cartels. Bucky couldn’t help but shake his head. Either she’s a bleeding heart case, or she’s just downright suicidal. Either way, she was in tremendous danger, and Bucky hoped, if only for Steve and Wilson’s sake, that the Wakandans could pull her out of this mess in time.

And then what? You heard T’challa, she’s going to be placed under Wakandan protection, meaning she’s stuck here. It meant that sooner or later they’d have to face one another, sooner or later he’d have to reckon with what it was that Ramirez had been to his sister, and what therefore she meant to him.

Bucky shook his head again. They’d worry about that after she’d been pulled out from under the Cartel and the United States government’s noses and not a moment before. After all, a lot could happen in 24-48 hours. Anything could happen.

Chapter Text

The streets were quiet, or quieter than she’d expected them to be on the Day of the Dead. Then again, this was Juarez.

The streets were crumblings, and the street lights were scant. Those that were illuminated flickered, casting an eerie glow on the road around them.

Maggie exhaled slowly, running her hands over the steering wheel of the panel van she was sitting in. The vehicle was parked, and her eyes swiveled left to right, keeping vigilant for anything that wasn’t supposed to be there.

She quietly recited the route. She’d driven it dozens of times now. She knew it like the back of her hand.

The back of my hand, right.

Her attention turned momentarily turned to her left hand. She knew the route like the back of this hand that was for damn sure. She surveyed it slowly in the dim light, the scars still ghastly and bright, the joints not entirely proportional. She’d developed a tremor in that hand since she’d come to Juarez. Being on the run wasn’t conducive to P.T. though Maggie was reasonably sure that factory work hadn’t helped either. But the Maquillas were always looking for fresh blood, and she’d needed a job and a cover.

Being a factory girl wasn’t glamorous work, it didn’t pay well, but it kept her busy, and it had kept her invisible. No one looks twice at a factory girl, no one asks them about their past or their homes or their families. Scars and mangled limbs were par for the course, and working through intolerable pain even more so.

Every one of them had a story, and every one of them was on their own, which was why it had been the perfect cover. No attachments, no relationships, no messy entanglements. That’s what Natasha had taught her, and that’s what needed to happen for her to stay out of any further trouble.

Thus far, she hadn’t done a good job of keeping a low profile. By the very nature of her complexion and accent, she was different. She was far lighter-skinned than most of the others and spoke Texas-Spanish rather than the Spanish particular to central Mexico where most of her co-workers had come from. But crossing the border had been the only way Maggie could think of that would make it more difficult for her to be tracked. And she was all about making things more difficult for anyone who might be pursuing her.

Then Maggie had moved into a two-bedroom apartment with six other girls. She'd been the oldest, of course, most of them no more than seventeen or eighteen. Away from their families, their village, their homes for the first time in their lives. They’d taken to calling her their Aunt, and each other cousins. Maggie didn’t mind so much, she could understand it. Most of them were homesick, all of them were frightened and she didn’t blame them.

There were a great many reasons to be afraid. Afraid they’d lose their job over a minor infraction. Afraid of not having enough to eat, or not having enough to send home to their parents. Afraid of what lurked in the dark.

These girls weren’t stupid. They knew about the cartel activity, about the kidnapping and killing of young women, young women just like them. They very well knew that it could be one of them next, while they walked home from the grocery store or the bus stop.

Maggie was afraid. She’d been afraid long before coming to Juarez, but in the dark, those fears amplified and compounded tenfold. She was afraid of being captured, afraid of being caught or worse, dragging one of these girls with her.

Maggie sighed, looking around the street again. Nothing had changed. She was still a bleeding heart case, despite everything, despite needing to remain detached, the girls had wormed their way into her heart, and she had welcomed them with open arms. They trusted her, and Maggie wanted to protect them.         

That was how she’d gotten wrapped up in all of this mess.

One of her roommates had gone missing, and then one of the girls on the line that had shown her the ropes the first day had disappeared, and then another who’d always shared her lunch with girls who hadn’t brought theirs hadn't shown up to work. Maggie had tried to keep her head down, tried not to get involved, not make waves, and stick out in the crowd. She tried to ignore the gaps filled by another faceless voiceless girl and the muffled sobs in the night.

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t turn a blind eye, couldn’t watch as these girls went to slaughter at the hands of evil men. So she’d gone looking for trouble. Or rather, gone looking for any trace of where these girls had disappeared and who had seen them last. She’d asked questions, perfectly innocent ones too, until she’d found herself on a rooftop, watching an exchange take place. That was how she’d found them, or rather they’d found her. The Network.

They’d snatched her off the roof and interrogated her. They’d been watching her, and they were interested in why someone like her was interested in finding the girls. Then, rather than killing or maiming her, they offered her a job, or a job of sorts to prove she wasn’t a cartel informant. Mostly it was small things, carrying notes, or passing off packages and supplies to the Marias within the Network.

The Marias had the most difficult and dangerous jobs, they baited the cartels into kidnapping them so they could lead the Network to the locations where the cartels were holding the girls. From there an extraction and transport would be arranged.

Maggie had worked in the courier position for about a month before she’d been promoted to transport. She’d been so nervous that first night, but after a while, the nerves and adrenal had faded to a dull twinge. She’d seen too many deaths at the hands of the cartels to allow nerves to play a part. She knew what they were capable of, but then again she also knew what she was capable of.

She glanced down at the floorboards of the van, her go-bag wedged just under the driver’s seat, her gun taped just out of view under the steering column, extra magazines were tucked into her waistband. She was ready.

Tonight was supposed to be like any other pick up, but something else was going on, something big, something that was putting everyone on edge. It hadn't been outright said, but there was something massive about to take place, and everyone was bracing for the worst.

Maggie glanced at the side mirror. Her partner stood about a block away smoking a cigarette, and she waited with bated breath for the signal. 'Two blocks up, five minutes, four for pick up, the coast is clear.’

She turned on the stopwatch placing it in the cup holder attached to the dashboard and started the van checking that everything was good to go.

Her eyes scanned the street just outside. The sun had already dipped below the horizon and the sky was a multitude of purple pinkish hues. It was gorgeous, a true triumph of nature. Her eyes turned from the sky to the earthly, human squalor below. The potholes in the road, the flickering street lights, the cinder block and wrought iron fence line that hid unknown dangers beyond them. Anything could happen.

She offered up a silent prayer, touching the chain around her neck and the two wedding bands strung around them. Riley, if you’re up there, keep an eye on my six. It was the same prayer she’d given every night that she’d done a runner. Most members of the Network left candles in churches or at the many shrines they’d constructed around the city. Some wore pendants with various saints. Maggie spoke to Riley, and to her mother, and brother, and grandfather, and all those who had gone before her to either protect her in her mission or guide her home if she was through. It was a small comfort, but it was the only comfort that she could afford in such a place and time.

The stopwatch beeped and Maggie silenced it, before shifting the van into drive. The radio was on but she could hardly hear it over the thundering of her heartbeat.

Pulling up to a stop sign, there was a series of quick knocks on the side of the door, and Maggie unlocked the van before the door slid opened and then quickly shut again.

Maggie continued driving without saying a word, but she could hear them, hear their ragged breaths caught in their throats, their muffled, silent tears, that escaped through cupped hands and clenched jaws. She kept her eyes front, fingers tapping the steering wheel along to the radio. They drove a good two minutes in total silence before she could hear the breathing behind her start to even out, and the palpable tension start to dissipate.

She made the planned turn left and then right several blocks down, keeping her eyes moving between the road and the side mirrors.

Then she spotted it.    

A single beat-up pickup truck, nondescript, barely noticeable if she hadn’t been looking for it. It was a small vehicle, but three men were sitting in the cab, and another two in the back. It wouldn’t have meant anything, but they’d been trailing her for two blocks.

Fuck.

She turned on her left blinker and the truck behind her did the same. Turning right at the last minute the truck followed.

Maggie wished it was a coincidence, she wished that she could even think that it might be a coincidence, but it wasn’t.

Maggie turned right when she should’ve turned left and there was a sharp inhale of breath from behind her. The Maria knew they’d been made.

There came the rushed whispers, and a shuffling as the girls plastered themselves on the floor of the van. Then there was silence. Only the sound of the radio, and the road, and the loud thudding of Maggie’s heart.

She knew the procedure. Shake the tail and head toward a secondary transport location. If it came to a fight, be prepared to fight. But above all else, do not compromise the Network.

Twisting and turning and winding through the streets, Maggie drove calmly and purposefully, doing her best not to show any indication of panic or fear.

She was two blocks away from the secondary transport location when a car, sleek, and black, and definitely not from this part of Juarez pulled out in front of her.

“Fuck.” She swore under her breath. “I’m going to need you all to hold on.” She said quietly. I'm going to get you out of this. Maggie would’ve said had she been a hero, had she been Natasha, or Steve, or Sam, had she been a soldier, a spy, a hero, had she been anything but a small frightened woman in over her head.

The car slammed on its breaks, and Maggie put the van into reverse and flooring the gas. Speeding backward, she maneuvered around the truck and down the street. When she reached an intersection, she put the van back into drive, turned, and sped away, tires screeching behind them.

Then came the sound of gunfire. First in single thick sounding rounds, and then in a quick burst.

They’re going to shoot out your tires.

She knew she didn’t have much time. She’d bought them a little bit of time with her maneuver, but it wasn’t going to be enough to shake them completely.

Maggie flinched at the sound of bullets ripping through the side of the van, metal on metal with a smell like fireworks.

She returned her focus to the road, mapping our the streets of Juarez in her head. They were going to have to abandon the van sooner rather than later, fan-out, and meet at the rendezvous point on foot. “Can you get them to the secondary drop?” Maggie stammered her Spanish sloppy and nearly incoherent.

“Yes.” The Maria responded, her voice still smooth and even. “We’re going to need cover.”

“Leave that to me.” There it was. The bravado, the confidence, the assurance. Maggie wasn’t sure where it had come from, but she knew that she needed to be that right now, for those girls, for the Maria, for the Network, for herself.

There was a gentle squeeze on her elbow. “God go with you.” The Maria murmured gently.

Maggie nodded, swallowing hard. “Be ready to go in in 3...2..1...” She veered off the road and slammed on the breaks.

The van shuddered to a stop at an alleyway, blocking it off to anyone going in or out. Before the van could stop completely, the Maria was issuing instructions in rapid-fire Spanish, and she and the girls were out and into the alley, before Maggie could open the driver’s side door out into the alleyway.

Grabbing her gun, and putting on her go-bag, she turned her back to the alley and faced the street. Out in the street, the perusing vehicles had screeched to a halt, and its inhabitants were now climbing from their vehicles to open fire upon them.

Fuck.

She was aware that she was telling the girls to run, but as soon as the gunfire resumed, everything else melted away. She’d been here before, not like this, not in this way, but Natasha had been right. Be prepared to kill, because whoever is trying to kill you will likely have more training and won’t hesitate.

Maggie wasn’t sure about the better-trained bit of that, how many cartel thugs had been trained by a former Hydra/KGB super spy and avenger? But they did want to kill her.

She half ran, half sidled, ducking and dodging behind dumpsters, electrical boxes, and other street garbage, as she tried to give the girls and the Maria cover, and suppressing fire as they ran along the alley ahead of her.

There was a scream, and she turned to see the Maria hunched against the wall, her hand clutching her stomach. The girls froze, glancing between her and the bleeding Maria. “You have to go now. Run!” She told them, as she rushed to help the wounded woman. “I’ll take care of her.” Maggie turned and slung the woman’s right arm over her shoulder, wrapping her left arm around her waist. "You with me?” Maggie asked, breathlessly.

“You should go, go without me.” She managed weakly as they staggered up the alleyway toward the next dumpster they could get shelter behind.

Maggie didn’t have time to reply as another spray of bullets hailed around them, kicking up rocks at their feet. Maggie winced as several of the large rocks hit her in the leg and back.

“Come on. Come on, we’re okay.” Her voice was strained and squeaky as she eased the Marie down on the ground behind the dumpster. Before reaching for another magazine to re-load her gun. She came up empty.

Looking down, she realized her hands were shaking and that she and her clothes were covered in blood. Staggering to her knees, she reached over to check the Maria’s pulse but stopped to steady herself against the dumpster, her vision blurry, a high pitched ringing in her ears that drowned out the sound of gunfire.

Looking down again, she saw that the blood wasn’t from the other woman, it was hers. She’d been shot, twice, once through her thigh, and once through her side.

Frantic and with shaking hands, she ripped off her backpack, and yanked some paracord from the front pocket, wrapping the cord around her leg, just above the entry wound. She turned to the other woman. She wasn’t breathing.

“Maria," Maggie called frantically in a hoarse whisper, tears started to stream down her grime and blood-streaked face.

The shouting and the gunfire were getting closer. Only, Maggie realized after a moment, it wasn’t directed at them.

“Maria.” She repeated. It wasn’t her name, it wasn’t her real name, Maggie didn’t know her real name, didn’t know if she had a family if she had lost someone if anyone knew who she was, or if there would be anyone to tell that she was missing or dead.

Maggie paused as the street fell silent, but with the silence came the feeling of leaden terror. Fear overwhelmed her senses, as she frantically pulled the utility knife from her backpack before pulling it back on. Dragging herself to her feet, she held her breath, ready to defend herself, against whatever was to come.

Rounding the dumpster, she saw something, more shadow than actual shape. Maggie lunged as best as she could, but the thing in black, grabbed and shook the knife from her hand. Grabbing her wrist, it hauled her bodily over their shoulder.

She tried to scream, but like a nightmare, no sound came out as the world slipped away and into inky blackness.

           

***

 

Maggie was awake, but kept her eyes shut, as she tried to take in as much as of her surroundings as possible without alerting her captors? Rescuers? She wasn’t entirely sure. She was warm, there was a soft, albeit heavy, blanket on top of her. She wasn’t in any sort of pain, she wasn’t tied down, and the voices that she could hear were low, but tinged with concern rather than menace. If she was being held hostage by the cartels or the U.S. government, they were certainly being very considerate.

Then one voice cut through the din, “How is she? Is she stable? Can I see her?”

Eyes shooting open, Maggie sat bolt upright, throwing off the blanket, scrambled from the examination table and charged blindly in the direction of the voice. “Steve?” She croaked, her mouth and throat dry.

Maggie tripped but was grabbed by two very strong hands before she could hit the ground.

“Steve?” Her voice was shaking as she looked up into the concerned face of none other than Steve Rogers.

“I got you, Maggie, I got you.” He said soothingly, as he helped her right herself.

Looking up at him, a thousand feelings, thoughts, and emotions crossed her mind. “You have a beard.” She managed finally, with a half-laugh as tears started to well in her eyes, cupping his face in her hands.

“Yeah.”

Without anything else to say, Maggie pulled him into a hug, practically collapsing into his arms. She was safe, or she was dead, either way, she was with Steve, so she knew that Sam was nearby.

“I’ve got you, you’re safe, everything is all right.” Steve murmured, as he held her tightly in his arms.

Maggie pulled back. It wasn’t all right. She’d been shot, the Maria, the girls what had happened to them? She looked around, taking in everything around her. She was in some kind of laboratory, but she could only use the word loosely. It was a round room, made of rock, and windows. There were holographic screens and work stations that illuminated and blinked in various colors. Outside the windows, there was a massive mining operation taking place. They were underground, and the gigantic cavern below them stretched on forever.

Where the fuck am I?

She glanced up at Steve. “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on? Where’s Sam? What happened to the girls and the other woman?” She stammered, reaching down she lifted up the shirt she was wearing to find there was no bullet wound, no scar, just even smooth brown skin. “I was shot.” She stammered, looking back up at Steve. “I was shot. I was shot twi-” She stopped as she looked past Steve, a dark suit catching her eye.

“That! I've seen that!” She rushed past him and toward it. “Only not this one.”

Maggie turned back around to Steve and saw two people standing several yards behind him. A black man and woman. Siblings if Maggie was going to guess, based on similar features. The woman, was the younger of the two, probably younger than Maggie, if she could even be called a woman, and not a girl. Her features while currently grave were young and youthful, with a bit of youthful fullness to them, like some of the girls she’d worked with in Juarez, putting her at no more than sixteen or seventeen, eighteen at the very most. She was wearing a bright neon pink and green dress with asymmetrical color stripes and patterns of other neons in blue and orange and yellow. Over the dress, she wore a mesh smock and white shoes approximating sneakers. Her hair was braided in thin rows and piled on top of her head into two messy buns with beads and bright threads both woven into her hair, and holding the buns in place, and adding pops of color and ornamentation to the young woman’s hair.

The man, by contrast, was far more understated wearing a black tunic, cut and fitted like a long jacket, emblazoned with white and silver embroidery around the neck and yoke of the jacket, with loose-fitting black pants, and what appeared to be leather boots. His expression was grave like his sister’s, but it wasn’t as concerned as his sister’s, it was evaluating her, sizing her up.

Like I’m his prey. Maggie realized. Yet, despite this, she knew she’d seen him before, somewhere, not at all registering in her addled brain at the moment, and that while she should be frightened, she wasn’t frightened of him. She was alive, likely because of him, and she hadn’t been shot, restrained, or otherwise harmed in any way since she’d jumped off the table she’d been on.

“Where am I?” She asked shortly, looking past Steve to the man.

“You are In Wakanda.”

All of the synapses in her brain fired at once, and like a pot of coffee and a kick in the teeth, she realized who she was addressing. “Making you T’Challa, King of Wakanda.”

The man nodded graciously. “I am. This is my sister Princess Shuri.” The King said, taking several steps toward her. “How are you feeling Ms. Ramirez?”

“In all due respect, your highness, confused," Maggie answered shortly, glancing between Steve and the monarch, waiting for Steve to pipe up with some kind of explanation. Instead, Steve looked tense, as he eyed her warily, almost expectantly, as if he was waiting for her to lunge or make a move that might threaten the King or his sister. Which didn’t make any sense. The bombings at the U.N., the ones that had killed King T’Chaka, had been initially pinned on James Barnes. It had been a huge international stink, and one of the many reasons she’d gone into hiding. Sure, later it had come out that it had been some guy named Zemo, but it still didn’t make sense that Steve would be here.

“I imagine that you are.”

“So, how does this work? I ask questions, and you answer them, or am I supposed to wait for you to deliver a monologue?”

Something approximating an amused expression crossed the King’s face, but it did nothing to relieve the palpable tension in the room. “I would be interested to hear what you know, Ms. Ramirez, before I bore you with a monologue.”

Maggie glanced over at Steve, doing her best to convey 'what the fuck is going on?’ In a single glance, before returning her full attention to King T’Challa. “Well, I take it, you’re the people who pulled me out of Juarez. With that thing.” She motioned to the suit on the mannequin a few feet away, which now upon further inspection, looked like a catsuit.

Maggie paused, taking a moment to look around the room before she put her left hand down where the bullet wound should have been, rubbing it gingerly. Steve was here, meaning that Steve was allies or associates with King T’Challa, despite the fact that Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Sam Wilson were international fugitives under the Sokovia Accords. They were friendlies, or close to it because otherwise, it would have been politically expedient to let her die in the streets of Juarez. But they hadn’t. Therefore the information that she had was valuable, dangerous, or both to the Wakandans.

Taking a deep breath, she locked eyes with the King, “And if I’m going to guess, I’d say that I’m here because of James Barnes, aren’t I?”

There was a beat of silence. Steve shifted his weight, glancing back and forth between her and T’Challa. She was right, Maggie knew she was right. Steve’s poker face was for shit. She’d said that man’s name, and his expression had changed. Not that it became softer, by any stretch of the imagination, but there had been a slight twitch if it could be called that. Whether it was satisfaction or displeasure, Maggie likewise couldn’t say for sure.

“What makes you think that, Ms. Ramirez?” T’Challa inquired, his expression and tone giving away nothing.

“Because he’s here.” Maggie pointed at Steve, “And I’m here, and you wanted me alive for some reason.” She felt that her logic was sound. The connection between her and Steve was Barnes. That’s what had gotten her into this mess in the first place, and seemed to be a reoccurring theme in her life. It was why she had left the country, it was why she had hauled around her journals the entire time. Maggie paused, her heart stopped momentarily, and her eyes went wide. “My bag.” She gasped.

“It is here, and all of the contents are accounted for.” The King answered calmly, motioning behind her.

Maggie turned and saw that her bag was indeed sitting untouched on a workbench. Stained with blood, dirt, and lord knew what else, but it was there, intact. Walking over to it, Maggie, picked it up and unzipped it. All of the contents were there, undisturbed and in the same place she had left them. Looking up, she met the gaze of the King and Princess. “Thank you.” She said graciously.

“Of course.” T’Challa nodded. “We have a room prepared for your use in the palace, for the duration of your stay. You may retire there now if you wish, but my advisors may have some questions for you about the Network and will wish to speak with you in some length.  I’m sure you and Captain Rogers have a lot to talk about. A lot has happened since your disappearance in June, he will want to brief you on what you've missed since then.”

Maggie nodded as her brain tried to process what she was hearing. “So James Barnes is the reason I’m here.” She said as conclusively as she could manage. She needed an answer, a straight answer, and if she had to keep asking repetitive and even asinine questions to get an answer, she'd keep trudging along.

“Yes," T’Challa answered simply.

Finally.  A straight answer.

“And how long am I here for?” Maggie asked, pushing her luck further. The phrase, 'for the duration of your stay’ had a convenient sort of vagueness to it, that Maggie really wanted to clarify before things went any further.

“For the foreseeable future. Or until the information you possess becomes irrelevant.”

For the foreseeable future?

The phrase echoed in her head a thousand times. They were holding her here. She was being held here. This was witness protection 2.0, this was being locked in the tower with a security detail that followed her everywhere. This is what she had just spent the last two and a half years trying to find a way out of, to now find herself in the exact same situation. Only this time she was being held by a nation’s sovereign. It was kidnapping. It was abduction.

They did just save you from the cartels.

But that didn’t matter. She probably would’ve died had they not intervened, and that would’ve been okay too. Better than being stuck, better than being held in any location she didn’t choose to be. “So I’m being detained here.” It came out sharper than she’d meant it to, but it needed to be said.

“It is in our interest to keep you away from parties who might use you as leverage.” The King of Wakanda replied smoothly. “But if you wish to leave, we will not stop you.”

Where would I go? She would’ve asked, had it not been entirely laughable. Where could she go? Join Sam and Steve on the run? She’d been on the run for three months and had gotten shot twice. That wasn’t sustainable or doable in her case. She wasn’t a super, she wasn’t a soldier, she didn’t have powers or a wingsuit. What was she going to do? She couldn’t leave and go back into hiding, not unless she wanted to spend the rest of what would be a very short life in a government holding cell. Trapped. She was trapped. “Is James Barnes in the country?”

“Does that make a difference?”

Yes, it did.

Maggie couldn’t help but think about the journals, and the photographs, and everything that she had carried with her through her time in Juarez. Yes. She needed to finish this, needed to come face to face with James Barnes, and hand over everything she had learned about him, everything that she knew, everything that Becca had told her. If for no other reason than to wash her hands of him and get closure after two and half years of spending almost every waking minute thinking about him, and trying to track down where he was. She could live her life, even confined, once she’d done that. “Yes.” She said simply.

“He is.”

Maggie nodded, swallowing hard. She didn’t need to know the exact circumstances of his arrival in the country, or why he was still here, that was something that hopefully Steve could fill her in on once they’d left the presence of the royal family. She just needed some basic facts. “Has James Barnes been briefed as to my situation?”

“He has, yes.” T’Challa nodded.

Maggie said nothing. So he knew she was in the country. What exactly he knew about her, and her relationship to Becca, Steve, Nat, and Sam was a different story, and could be solved at a later date. The facts remained she was going to be in Wakanda for the foreseeable future, and James Barnes knew about it. “Will I be permitted to leave the palace?” She inquired.

“As I said before, you are not being detained here. Ms. Ramirez.”

“But I’m not being given anything to do, in the palace. So can I leave it?” She replied.

The siblings exchanged glances before looking at Steve and then her. “I don’t believe I follow," T’Challa said shortly.

Maggie sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. “I don’t wanna be stuck inside.” She said weakly. “While I appreciate a room in the palace for my personal use, I’d prefer something rural where I can be around animals and around nature. I’ve always worked with my hands, and if I’m going to be here for the foreseeable future, I would like to be able to put my time toward something productive. And I don’t see that being as much of an option if I’m cooped up in the palace.”

T’Challa nodded firmly. “I see.” He frowned thoughtfully, looking out toward the windows, where the mining was taking place a moment before he turned back to her. “I will see what can be done to secure you a place to live and work out in the countryside. As I am given to understand it, you worked with horses on your ranch back in the United States. Correct?”

“Yes.” Maggie nodded.

“Then I will speak with the appropriate people to find you a position out in the grasslands.”

“Thank you, your highness.” She said, as graciously as she could manage. She should be thankful, he didn’t have to do any of this, he didn’t have to let her in his country, or give her a place to live and work. He could’ve let her die in Juarez. It, all things being equal, could be worse.

“Of course.”

“I do have a few more questions.” Maggie continued.

“I am sure you do Ms. Ramirez, but first you should rest. Then, when the time is appropriate, you may ask all the questions you want. Though, if you get an answer is a different matter entirely.”

Of course. Naturally. She surveyed the two Wakandans and then glanced at Steve. She wasn’t going to get much farther than she already had, at least not today. “Can I know who saved my life? And who patched me up? I’d like to say thank you.” She managed wearily.

“I will pass along your thanks to the appropriate parties," T’Challa said shortly. “But for now I think you should get some rest. You will be staying in the same apartment Captain Rogers used. He can show you the way, or I can have on my personal guards escort you, whatever you prefer.”

Maggie wasn’t sure if that was a threat or an offer, but glancing at Steve found that he was watching her intently. She couldn’t tell what the King meant by it, but having Steve by her side was far preferable than any sort of King’s guard, regardless of intention. “I think Steve will be more than enough, I don’t want to be any more trouble.” She said.

“Of course. It was good to meet you, Ms. Ramirez, I only wish it had been under better circumstances.” T’Challa said.

Yeah Me too. “Thank you again, for your generosity, your highness. I hope in time I may come to repay it.”

“Of course.” He nodded. “Captain, Ms. Ramirez, good day.” He said before turning to leave.

Wordlessly Steve picked up her backpack, and took her by the elbow, leading her silently through the research compound, out into the bright sunlight. Crossing a long bridge, they entered a lift that transported them to a series of apartments. Eventually, Steve stopped outside one of the many identical-looking doors and removing a key card swiped in front of the sensor. Holding the door open for her, Maggie stepped inside and waited for Steve to follow. Only when the door had closed securely behind him, did she turn to look at him directly.

“Steve, I ask this with all due respect, what the fuck?” Her voice was shaking, her whole body was shaking. She may have been out of the world for three months, but absolutely nothing that had happened in the last twenty minutes had made any sense whatsoever. She wanted to scream, wanted to shout, wanted to punch and hit and bite and scratch and do anything and everything she could to get out of the situation she was in, but one look at Steve’s face Maggie realized that it wouldn’t do one ounce of good.

“I know. I’m sorry.” He said slowly after a long silence. “Let me make you some lunch while you shower, and then I’ll explain everything. If I can, I’ll try to get into contact with Sam too. He’ll be happy to hear from you.”

At the mention of Sam, her whole body softened, the tension easing slightly from her shoulders and back. Maggie nodded. “Okay. Fine.” She couldn’t argue with food, shower, or answers from either Steve or Sam.

So without further protest or inquiry, she ventured into the bathroom to turn on the water.

She took a nice long shower in the apartment’s bathroom, while Steve made grilled cheese and tomato soup. Then only after they’d eaten did Steve tell her everything or everything that he could. The bombing, the chase through Romania, the triggering in Berlin, the fight at the Leipzig airport, he and Barnes’s escape to Siberia, Sam’s capture, his and Barnes’s fight with Tony, T’Challa’s offer of help, Steve’s rescue of Sam and the others, Barnes’s stint on ice, and of course what they’d been up to in the meantime. Concluding with the briefing with the Wakandans, Steve called Sam, and she and Sam talked for a good hour and a half before Sam was called away and they had to say goodbye.

Handing the phone back to Steve, Maggie realized she hadn’t retained much of what she’d just heard. The basics, at the very least, but her whole body felt numb, and the world around her was dull and fuzzy.

“I’ll let you get some rest. I should probably head back out to the village.”

“Village?” Maggie echoed, rising to help Steve clear away the dishes.

“Bucky is staying out there. For the time being.”

“So he really is here.” She said blandly as if she hadn’t just spent the last few hours hearing that exact thing.

“Yeah.” Steve nodded. “You okay?” He asked.

Maggie sighed, shaking her head. She looked around the room. It looked clinical, like a hotel room, as if it had been made just for their particular American sensibilities. It was nicer than anywhere she’d stayed at in over three months, but there was a particularly sterile feeling to the entire place, even perhaps more so than the Wakandan laboratory. But it lacked personality or any sense of personal touches. If she was honest, it reminded her of the flat back in Avengers tower, or the rooms she’d occupied in the Avenger's Compound. “I don’t know.” She admitted after a moment. “I think I just need to get some rest and get my feet up under me. Once I get my bearings I’ll feel better, I think.” She smiled weakly, more to reassure Steve than as an indication of how she was feeling.

“I’m sure of it, and if you need anything, I’m a call away.” He removed a string of beads from around his wrist and set them on the side table. “They’re Kimoyo beads, Shuri asked me to give them to you. You can make a call if you tap this one.” He motioned to a particular one. “And say my name," Steve explained quickly.

She nodded. “Okay, sounds good.”

“Get some sleep if you can.” He said, moving toward the door, paused, before returning to where she stood and gave her a big hug. “It’s good to know you’re safe.”

“Yeah.” She said, returning the embrace. “Safe.” She concluded distantly.

He pulled away and surveyed her carefully, concern on his features. “And really. Call if you need me.”

“Will do Steve.” She paused, glancing at her backpack on the bed and then up at Steve. “Tell Barnes I need to talk to him. At his earliest convenience.”

Steve looked at her uncertainly. “I can do that. Are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah.” Maggie nodded wearily. “I just need to tie up some loose ends.”

“I understand," Steve said. “When you’re ready, I can make an introduction.” He gave her another quick hug. “Until then, get some rest.”

“Thanks.” She waved, as he left the room, the door locking behind him.

Maggie sighed, exhaustion clouding her thoughts and making every movement a labor. She turned to the bed and winced. As enticing as it was, even she knew that sleeping in a bed was out of the question. After sleeping on basically the ground for close to three months, there was no way she’d be able to sleep on a mattress.

Dragging the blankets from the bed, she positioned the pillows on the rug near the large sliding glass door and wrapped herself amongst the bed linens before lying down on the floor. She’d started her day in Juarez, preparing to pull four girls from the cartels. What had happened to them, she didn’t know. Had they made it safe? Had the Maria pulled through? She didn’t like to think too hard about it. Now she was sitting here, somewhere safe while there were still people out there who weren’t.

I should be dead.

The thought drifted through the thick fog that clouded her murky mind.

But you aren’t.

So what was she going to do? How could she possibly deal with the fact that once again she was starting over? Once again, James Barnes had put her in a situation that she didn’t have a way out of. How was she going to come face to face with the man who had ruined her life now just about three times?

When you’re ready, I’ll make an introduction.

That’s what Steve had said. Would she ever be ready? Could she ever be ready? She didn’t know. But as Maggie faded in and out of slumber, one thing was certain, she needed to hand over the journals, and wash her hands of the entire mess. The quicker she did that, the quicker she could move on, and the quicker she could figure out what the hell she was going to do with her time, now that she was stuck in Wakanda for the foreseeable future, with the man who was responsible for at least two out of the six worst moments of her life.

Chapter Text

Magdalen Ramirez had been in Wakanda for three days. Steve had been gone for about 24 hours.

Maggie wants to talk to you.” Steve had announced when he’d returned from the capital after she’d been pulled from Juarez.

Steve hadn’t supplied further information, as if waiting for some kind of response before he continued. “Did she say why?” He’d asked after a moment.

“Wanted to tie up loose ends.”

Well, that could mean anything.

I’ll take care of it.” Steve had replied when he hadn’t said anything further.

Take care of it? Take care of what? This wasn’t a fight your way out of it type situation. Although exactly what type of this situation was remained to be seen.

She’d taken the news well, according to Steve. Though, what "well" meant in this context, Bucky didn’t know.

Whatever "well" meant, she hadn’t been happy about the prospect. Though Bucky couldn’t imagine anyone being happy told that they were being confined because they were a security threat. How Steve had expected her to take everything, he didn’t know. The guy still didn’t think things all the way through. Leap first, make sure you have a goddamn parachute while you’re plummeting toward the ground.

"I’ll take care of it," Steve had repeated when he’d been packing to head back out to rendezvous with Wilson.

“You really don’t have to Steve. I’m more than capable of handling it.” He’d assured Steve.

After all, Steve had said she only wanted to talk.

Yeah, the woman who’s life you ruined just wants to talk.

So what were his options? He could avoid her until they absolutely couldn’t anymore. Or he could try to set up a meeting to where they could talk.

Thus far, his only solution had been to put it off, which felt an awful lot more like option one than he cared to admit.

Are you frightened of her?

Physically? No. But this was someone who was stuck here indefinitely and had also enjoyed unlimited and likely unrestricted access to information about his past, including being directly involved with not one, but three key people from his past. There was a lot she likely knew, and Bucky wasn’t sure how he felt about it.

What he did know is if he didn’t resolve this soon, it wasn’t going to end well, for anyone involved.

“Breathe, Mr. Barnes.” Princess Shuri’s voice pulled him back.

He was lying on her examination table. Just above his head, he could hear The Princess working, the bangles around her wrists jingling together as she moved her hands, manipulating the real-time holographic projection of his brain.

“Sorry, Princess.” He said, taking an exaggerated breath in part to make a show of willing, but also because he had been holding his breath.

“You were very deep in thought,” She commented as she continued working. “How are you feeling? What are you sensing?”

 Bucky paused, running his tongue over his teeth. “You’re making me taste mint, aren’t you?” He asked after a moment.

“It was either that or pine smell," The Princess replied. “But that means your primary olfactory cortex is working like it’s supposed to.”

“How does it look?” He asked, uncertainly. He’d done this several times now since he’d come out of cryo. But every time he was always worried that something new would present itself and send them back to square one. Thus far, no such calamity had occurred, but there was always a first time for everything.

“Your brain? It looks excellent, very wrinkly and grey and fatty,” She answered. “Would you like to see?”

“I trust your judgment.” He paused.

“What?” She asked, putting her hands on her hips, extended her head into his field of vision so that he could just see your eyes. “I know you have something to say.”

He paused, licking his lips. “Just a hunch. But you knew about Ramirez from my memories.”

“Yes?”

“So, you saw my time at the ranch?”

“Not as such. I do know, however, that those memories are coded positively in your base memory. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.” He chewed on the inside of his cheek. They were positively coded. Did that mean that she could see what he was feeling in the display overhead? If he looked up, would he be able to see his own array of emotions?

“What’s going on?” She asked, in the universal tone of younger siblings up to no good.

Bucky sighed. There were no secrets from The Princess, even if he wanted there to be. It would be better to get it done and over with than to drag this thing out any more than he already had. “Steve mentioned before he left that Ramirez wanted to speak with me. I don’t know how to get ahold of her. Is there any way you could...you know...”

“Broker an introduction? Facilitate a rendezvous?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Set up a meeting so we can speak,” He said shortly.

“Facilitate a rendezvous sounds so much more exciting.

“I thought you warned me to stay away from too much excitement.” He replied.

“Stimuli, yes, excitement no. You could use a bit of excitement in your life.”

“I don’t think Ramirez is going to bring the kind of excitement into my life that you’re thinking of, Princess.”

Excitement was really the last thing either of them needed presently. He’d had enough excitement to last a lifetime, more than two lifetimes if he was honest. As for Ramirez, there was no telling what she had endured in Juarez, never mind during the two years she’d worked to hunt him down.

His mind and memory returned to the photograph, the photograph in the obituary. Ramirez had known his sister, well enough to be included in a family picture. They were friends, your sister loved her, Maggie took Becca’s death hard.

After the last two and a half years they’d both had, they didn’t need excitement, they needed closure, and he needed answers.

What had Ramirez told Becca? What had Becca told her? Beyond just that, she’d also been heavily involved in tracking him down. What had she learned? How much did she know? Did she know about his time training the Black Widows in the red room? His relationship with Romanoff? Did she know about everything that he’d done and had been done to him? Furthermore, what did knowing all of that do to a person like Ramirez? Do to someone who set out to fix the world? What would she think of him if she knew all that?

“How is your memory and remembering coming along?” She inquired, oh so very non-conspicuously changing the subject.

“Fine.” He answered shortly. There were still gaps, large ones. Princess Shuri had warned him that there might be some parts of his memory that he would never get back, but as far as he was concerned, it was a small price to pay in exchange for his freedom from Hydra.

“So, do really want me to set up a meeting for you?” She ventured slowly.

Bucky sighed, squeezing his eyes shut. Did he want to? No. Not really. But did he need to? Yes. He absolutely owed her the courtesy of a face to face meeting, where she could do whatever she needed to do and say what she needed to say to tie up loose ends, as Steve had said. Would that give him the answers he was looking for? Would he be able to ask that of her when the time came? He didn’t know. But unfortunately, he also knew nothing would happen if he didn’t ask Shuri to reach out to her and make a plan to meet.

 “Yeah. Ask her when she’s available.”

“She’s staying in the village with Jelani and Teela. She should have pretty open availability.”

“The horse breeders? Omondi’s friend?”

“Omondi is friends with everyone, but yes, the Jelani that breeds horses.”

So their paths were going to cross. More frequently than previously anticipated. This, unfortunately, made their meeting all the more imperative. The longer he waited, the more awkward it was going to be when he showed up on feed delivery day.

“Just let me know what she says.”

“Of course.” The Princess paused, with a thoughtful, almost mischievous air.

“What? Princess?” Bucky cracked one eye open and raised an eyebrow.

“You should not be so nervous about speaking with her.”

“It’s been a long time, and I did leave her for dead,” Bucky said flatly, doing his best to not sound totally dramatic.

“A lot has happened since then.”

This was fundamentally true, although Bucky would argue that nothing good had happened to her since then and that most of her misfortune had been in some way or another explicitly linked to him. However, that ultimately wasn’t up to him to decide. Whatever Ramirez thought of him or wanted of him was neither here nor there. The only thing he could do right now was arrange to meet her at her earliest convenience so that whatever needed to be said or done between them could be resolved quickly.

“All right! You’re all done. Same date and time next month?” She announced happily.

“Sounds like a plan.” He groaned, wincing as he sat up on the examination table.

“Unless something changes.”

“Unless something changes.” He agreed, adjusting his scarf before combing his fingers through his hair, swinging his legs over the edge of the table.

“Good. Have a good day, Bucky, and try not to worry too much. Magdalene Ramirez does not wish you any harm.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, thank you, Princess, for everything.”

“Of course, white boy. Now get back to your goats, I will let you know what she says when I get word from her about when she can meet.” She said before shooing him out of the lab.

Try not to worry too much.

How did she know? Well, she had seen the inside of his head, she knew his mind probably better than he did. But he was concerned, worried, anxious. Was he cueing off of Steve’s anxiety about the whole thing? Or was there some deeper reason that he was anxious to come face to face with Magdalene Ramirez? He wasn’t sure.

What could he honestly expect from her? What did he want to say to her when they finally were face to face after two years? For a majority of that time he’d thought she was dead. He had mourned for her, done research on her, and knew a lot more about her than he really felt comfortable admitting. How could he possibly enunciate all of that? Could he in fact say any of that? Would she want to hear any of it? Should he even bring it up? The possibilities raced through his already aching head until he felt like his whole world was spinning.

Relief, however, came Before he could make it back to the village, The Princess messaged him, letting him know that Ramirez had agreed to meet with him at 10:00am, at her place, just outside the horse village.

 He responded that he would be there. Then it was done. He had a meeting set, and there was nothing more to do than sit and wait, leaving him alone with his thoughts and his goats for the rest of the long afternoon into the evening.

What could she possibly mean by tie up loose ends? He couldn’t help but wonder, and would this interaction bring them closure? Or would it only invite more questions, complications, and difficulty?

The following morning he arrived on the outskirts of the village ten minutes early and found Ramirez outside one of the dwellings on a low stool, with a cup of coffee in hand and a journal open on her lap. She looked as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Like she had always been living in this remote and highly secretive African nation. As if she had always been apart of this village. Her hair was up, braided, and wrapped around her head. She was wearing a plain light-colored button-down shirt, and dark trousers tucked into boots. They weren’t the western style boots she’d worn On Last Chance, but the effect was the still the same. She looked like she’d walked directly from one of his memories. Yet, there was something sharper, more severe about her features, a weathered, aged expression on her face as she read the contents of the journal on her lap.

“You’re early Mr. Barnes, would you like some coffee? I made a whole pot.” She commented without looking up.

“No, thank you, Ms. Ramirez.” He replied.

At this, she looked up, surveying him with those dark eyes that had haunted his dreams and floated in his memories. She took stock of him, what she was learning, he could only guess, but satisfied with her findings, she nodded, closed the journal and rose, turning to face him. “I’m glad to see you’re doing well.” She cut herself off, “Better than the last time I saw you anyway.” She amended. “Been a bit of a wild ride since then for me. I can only imagine you’ve gone through some shit since we last saw one another.” Her gaze drifted, only momentarily to his left shoulder, where the prosthesis should have been.

Pausing, she drew in a deep breath. “I don’t know what Steve told you or what you’ve worked out on your own, but I worked with him, Samuel Wilson, and Natasha Romanoff to track you down after I left the ranch.” She paused, her fingers fiddling with the pages of the journal she was holding. “I also had the incredible experience of getting to know and becoming friends with your sister before she passed away.” She reached behind her, and collected a further two journals, holding the stack of three of them in both hands. “I kept very detailed records. They’re in a code Natasha taught me, but I think you’ll be able to decipher and understand, but I included a cheat sheet just in case. I thought it was only fair that you should have them. That way, you know what I know. Know what I found out while I was helping them track you down.” She took several steps toward him to close the gap between them, and then when she was arm’s distance away, extended the set to him.

He took them wordlessly, his eyes flickering to her left hand, the hand that had been in a cast in the group photo, and couldn’t help but notice the scarring on the appendage. Hydra. He could feel his stomach twinge. So it had been torture then.

“Thank you.” He managed after a moment, looking up to meet her silent and watchful gaze. “Is there anything else?” His voice felt harsh as he said it, but if Ramirez took notice, she didn’t show it.

“No.” She shook her head. “That’s all.”

He nodded, uncertain of what to say. Wasn’t there something? Anything? That she wanted to say to him? Was this all she’d meant by tie up loose ends? Wasn’t there something more than this that she wanted to say or do after everything that had happened?

“I’m sure we’ll see one another around. Princess Shuri tells me you’re working with Elder Omondi in the village over, minding goats.” She said quickly, as she returned to her seat, and her coffee.

“I’m also bagging and transporting feed.” He added. “Elder Jelani has a standing order every Tuesday.” He said, more out of a need for transparency than actually wanting to make conversation.

“So we’ll be running into one another with some regularity, then.“ She commented. Her expression and tone were decidedly neutral.

“You’re out here with the horses.”

“Yes, although I haven’t officially received my a position yet. Have you enjoyed your time out here so far?”

“It’s nice out here. Peaceful.” Was the only thing he could think of to say.

“I’m sure it’ll be a nice change of pace.” She agreed.

Bucky didn't know what to say, and they drifted off into a tense silence.

He wanted to say something, wanted to apologize, wanted to say thank you for protecting him, for helping Steve, for being a friend to his sister when he hadn’t had the courage to go to her. He wanted to, but the worlds felt hollow in his mind, even as he formulated them. He wanted closure, he needed closure, but just as he opened his mouth to speak, he chickened out. “I’ll let you get back to your coffee.” He managed finally. “Thank you again, for the journals.”

“No problem. I hope they help. See you around.”

“Yeah, see you around.”

And that was that. He walked away, journals in hand, feeling more bewildered and confused than he’d been before, with even more questions, and feeling somehow even more like a coward than he had before.

He should’ve said something, he should’ve said sorry, he should’ve asked about Becca, or asked for her forgiveness. He should’ve done something other than just stood there like a moron.

Bucky wound through the Wakandan countryside, confused and perplexed, and feeling oddly let down. Shouldn’t there have been something said about the fact that he’d ruined her life? Wasn’t this supposed to bring closure? That’s what this had been about, right? Closure, for both of them.

Perhaps the answers he was looking were in the journals. Perhaps she didn’t want anything to do with him, and so the best way was to hand over the journals so he could see the full extent of what she thought of him without the mess of a conversation.

Yet, she’d been so cordial. Well, of course, she would be, if not for Steve, then because they would be in close contact with one another for the foreseeable future. Still he couldn't help but feel that something was terribly terribly wrong about that entire interaction. That something had been off about the entire thing. 

Bucky didn’t know.

When he arrived back to his hut and sat down, setting the journals out in front of him. Ramirez had labeled them 1,2,3, and he opened the first one hesitantly, uncertain of what he was going to find. Inside the front cover was a letter. Unfolding it, he found it was in plain English, her tidy handwriting curling out and unfurling before him. It read:

Dear James,

 Let me start by saying sorry if the informality is unwelcome or unwarranted, but honestly, I have no idea how I ’d address you. Matt seemed silly, even though it was the name I knew you by, and Bucky likewise seems too informal, considering you and I haven’t met, not really. Therefore I reason, since James is the name you gave me that day in the outbuilding, it is the name that I will use to address you here.

What follows in these three journals is a complete record of my journey to track you down. As we are just now truly meeting for the first time, the content of these journals may seem strange, invasive, and perhaps downright unsettling. I understand, and I apologize for any discomfort they might cause. Over the past two years, I have heard many stories and uncovered many highly classified documents detailing your life both before 1945 and the long journey you ’ve taken since. All of these accounts have varied in degree of intimacy, often divulging highly personal and sensitive information.

I had two reasons for this when I first started this journal. Primarily I was doing all that I could to help Steve find you, and I had little thought of what the practical consequences of learning as much about you as possible would be. But then, at the time, I reasoned that I needed to know the man I was searching for. I needed to make him more than a name on paper or a face in a photograph. Through that, I built an idea of who I thought you were, which in retrospect, was both unwise and unfair, for all parties involved.

Since your discovery in Romania back in June, I ’ve had some time to think about how best to proceed with both the knowledge I possess and how that concerns us. I came to the following conclusion. Who I am to Steve and who I was to your sister exists outside of what I am to you. You don’t owe me anything, not your time, your friendship, your gratitude, anything unless you feel it is deserved or warranted. So much of your life, from how I’ve come to understand it, has been practically devoid of choice, so I wanted to give you this choice.

Finally, it must be stated that above all, I am a receptacle of knowledge and memory, and that is what you will find in these journals. If my entries or annotations are inadequate or insufficient, I am happy to provide an explanation or elaboration upon request.

 

         Respectfully,

 

     Magdalene I. Ramirez

 

Bucky set the letter aside, uncertain of what he should be feeling. It was an unemotional, practically clinical summation of their situation.
You don’t owe me anything.

So she didn’t want anything from him. She only wanted to be honest about their situation. He wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. It was a blank check, without a hint of good or bad, just there.

His focus then returned to the journals set before him. So. The question now remained, what did she know? He turned to the first page, and it was indeed in the code he and Natalia had developed while they were in Hydra together, and now it seemed Ramirez was fluent as well. Skimming through Ramirez’s personal iteration of the code, he turned his full attention to the first journal.

The first pages were an evaluation of him, of their time together on the ranch. It continued to her first weeks working with Steve and Wilson. Every day was entered faithfully and included where they were looking, what documents she had found, and her progression with her Russian language training. There was the day she’d met his sister. "Asked Steve to tell me about Barnes, introduced me to Rebecca Barnes-Proctor" and then the entry listed everything they’d talked about, almost like a grocery list.

Through the journal, he was able to trace his journey alongside hers. It was a thorough and detailed account of her activities and what she was discovering about him, both as James Barnes and the Winter Soldier. It was jarring to see the two worlds, two perspectives, presented side by side, nearly oblivious to how starkly they contrasted one another.

Then. There was an entry in plain English, scratched through heavily, but he was still able to make it out. It read simply. "Becca is dying. Where the fuck are you, Barnes?" It was the only ounce of emotion he could squeeze out of the pages and pages of writing, and he could feel the visceral anger seeping from the pages into his skull. The entries continued, until again there was another entry in plain English, stating simply, Becca Barnes-Proctor 1929-2015. After that, there was a complete shift in entries. There were no longer "Bucky Barnes" factoids. Instead, it was information about the Winter Soldier. Not just what he had done, but also what had been done to him, in cold and unfeeling detail: The memory wipe, the prosthesis, the mind control (although without any key information). Eventually, the journal became more about Romanoff’s lessons, with infrequent notes and entries about the continued search for his location.

Then, the journal ended abruptly with a single sentence. ‘Barnes Found in Romania.’

And that was it.

He knew what she knew, which was both massive in scope and content. Yet, he still felt on edge. There was no hint of personal feelings about what she was writing or what she had learned. With the simple exception of the crossed-out lines asking where he was when she’d found out Becca was dying, there was no emotion in her words.

In his own journals, Bucky recalled, there had been no emotion in what he’d written about what he’d remembered. He’d written at length about her and the other of the Winter Soldier’s victims, and he’d done his best to keep editorialization down to a minimum. Just fact, just raw data.

But this...He glanced down at the journals spread across his lap...this was something else. When he’d been researching, he’d been looking for his past, but with Ramirez, it was like she had reached into his brain, into his memories into his past, and put it on display. He didn’t know how to feel, or furthermore what he was supposed to do.

What did Ramirez think of everything she had learned? He didn’t know and had gotten little help from anything she’d written or said. What had finding all of that outdone to her? What did that information do to people? He didn’t even fully grasp what it had done...was doing to him, and he’d lived it.

He flipped through the journals again, slowly, and he examined the photographs that she had stuffed between the pages. The photo of him and Becca sitting on the front porch of his parent’s house. She was wearing her favorite blue dress, he was in his dress uniform. He reached out and picked up the picture, surveying it carefully. Was that the man that Becca had remembered? He didn’t know, nothing in the journals revealed anything beyond what Ramirez knew.

He returned that one to its place and flipped to the next photograph. It was one much more recently, November 11, 2014, Ramirez’s birthday. Ramirez was smiling, addressing the camera directly, while Becca looked at her, with this look of adoration on her face.

They were friends, your sister loved her, Maggie took Becca’s death hard.

Yet, Ramirez hadn’t said anything about Becca at all to him, not in the letter nor in their conversation outside of her dwelling. With the single exception of, “Who I am to Steve and who I was to your sister exists outside of what I am to you.”

But that didn’t mean anything.

Bucky frowned. Perhaps he’d missed something, perhaps there was more to uncover. Spreading the letter and the journals and photos tucked inside out on a low table, he picked up a pencil and his own journal and started again.

 

Chapter Text

Maggie had been in Wakanda for one week and a day. It felt like a lifetime, which made it even harder for her to believe that she’s survived in Juarez for three months. She’d been through a lot, and the last week felt muddled together in a soupy fog of exhaustion and uncertainty.

She’d spent her first two days in Wakanda cooped up in a conference room, surrounded by what Maggie could only assume was Wakanda’s top brass, military and intelligence commanders (most of them women much to Maggie’s surprise). She’d endured two twelve-hour days, answering questions, and providing as much information she could about the Network. They’d been through but gentle, which was all she could ask for in the circumstances. They’d even been kind enough to provide visual confirmation that the Maria and the three girls had made it to safety. The Maria was in stable condition and expected to make a full recovery, while the girls should be reunited with their families in the next 12 to 36 hours. Had the Wakandas provided medical care for the other woman? How close of a call had it been? Had there been something more going on that night?

Maggie didn’t know, and she hadn’t been at liberty to ask. She hadn’t been very high up in the Network but had done her best to answer their extensive questions. She wanted to help keep the Network safe and secure, and the Wakandans seemed interested in the same ends.

When the Wakandans were finally satisfied that they’d extracted every last bit of useful information out of her, Maggie had been taken personally by the King and his royal guard out to her new home. She’d talked with the village chief, Jelani and his wife Teela, who had agreed to sponsor her in their village. It hadn’t taken her long to move in, just her go-bag, and a few pieces of clothing that the Wakandans had been kind enough to give her, considering that her own clothes had been blood-stained and sporting bullet holes.

She’d been in the village for less than twenty-four hours when the princess had contacted her. “Barnes wants to talk with you, whenever works best for you’

Steve had left in such a hurry she was almost certain that he’d forgotten to mention anything to Barnes. So it had surprised Maggie that Barnes had reached out to arrange a meeting. Maggie had replied almost immediately, she and Shuri had set up the meeting time and place, and the rest, as they say, was history.

It had been four days since the handoff, and she was still stuck in that moment, replaying it over and over in her head. She’d been trying hard not to think about what had happened, she was trying not to think about a lot of things. However, she was only succeeding in making herself angry, frustrated, and exhausted.

The exhaustion couldn’t exactly be helped. She hadn’t had much success with sleep in the capital, even on the floor. Maggie had, however, had achieved more marginal success in getting to sleep now that she was out here in the middle of nowhere. However, even when she managed to fall asleep, she’d been waking up in cold sweats, clutching her stomach, and screaming.

It was her brain, Maggie knew, her brain attempting to process what had happened while she was in Juarez. Not just what had happened to her, but what she’d done to stay alive.

It was PTSD. Maggie was aware that’s what it was. She’d lived in near terror and constant danger for over three months, had shot and killed people, and had been shot and nearly killed herself. That was prime and fruitful territory for PTSD. This was, of course, not taking into account what she’d put herself through for almost two and a half years when she’d been searching for Barnes. The things she had learned about the Winter Soldier, she had carried them with her in her mind. All of the horrible, brutal, violent things that had been done to and perpetrated by him, they were all still with her, even as she’d tried her damndest to forget them.

It was part of the reason she’d wanted to hand over the journals to Barnes. She’d hoped that perhaps it would allow her brain to recognize that her mission, when it came to that, was over. She’d done everything, she’d achieved her mission, her goal, she could let go. She could wash her hands of the entire situation.

No. The deal was that if you found Barnes, you could go home.

Maggie paused, looking up and around at her surroundings. The gentle rolling grasslands, dotted with clusters of trees, under the looming shadow of the jungle and mountains above. Her eyes watered just looking at it. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t home.

Maggie glanced around Jelani’s workshop. It was like many other Ferrier workshops that she’d seen, been in, and operated. It had a forge, an anvil, and all of the rasps, clippers, and hammers that any Ferrier would need. It was tidy and organized. Just outside, there were the stocks, where horses would be secured to be shod. Yet, as Maggie looked around, it was unlike anything she’d ever seen. This was a Wakandan smith, and there were vibranium tools and devices that made shodding horses a hundred times easier, faster, and more effective.

She’d been shodding horses since she was sixteen, and had been helping shod horses since she was much younger than that. So it had only seemed natural that she would be assigned to the head Ferrier in Wakandan. Of course, Jelani was more than just a Ferrier, he was a vet, breeder, and helped to manage the horse herds around Wakanda. But for her part, Maggie was going to help with the shodding of the massive herds of Wakandan horses.

However, with the tremor and weakness of her left hand, it would’ve been nigh impossible for her to shod horses if they were doing it the western method. Fortunately, Jelani had taught her the Wakandan method, and she’d been able to perfect her technique in a single round of shodding. But she’d done the other method all of her life, and she was determined to be able to shod horses the way that her grandfather had taught her. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like a crushed hand get in the way of that. Which was why she was engaged in this stupid, futile task.

Maggie sighed, glancing back down at the horseshoe she was trying to bend to the correct shape.

She didn’t need to do this, she had nothing to prove. She could do perfectly fine work with the Wakandan method, there wasn’t any need or reason for her to strain herself trying to do something that was very clearly outside of her ability at the moment.

Her left hand was still shaking, and the clamps were difficult to hold, making her hammer work shoddy, giving the shoe a wave, but she needed to do this. It was like the guitar thing, she’d tried and tried after three months of PT to pick the guitar back up. It had been painful and slow and damn near impossible. So she’d given up, and passed the guitar along to Wanda, who knew how to play and had been in the market for a new guitar at the time. Doing this, shodding a horse, it was something pre “barn Matt” Maggie, pre-hydra Maggie could’ve done with her eyes closed, only now, here she was, struggling, unable to do what had used to be a simple task. It was yet one more thing that had been stolen from her, a part of her that she might never get back, no matter how hard she tried.

With a disgusted groan, Maggie set both the tongs, with the shoe still attached, and hammer on the anvil, and sunk down onto the bench a few feet away. Yanking off her gloves, she set them on the bench beside her, and buried her head in her hands, drawing in a few shuddering breaths.

It wasn’t fair. I did everything right. I shouldn’t be here, I should be home.

Maggie knew that wasn’t true. Natasha had warned her that if she proceeded past the point of no return that she wouldn’t be able to get out of this. At the time that had seemed nearly laughable, besides, it would be worth it in the end, being able to bring Becca’s brother home to see his sister before she passed away, being able to find and bring Steve’s friend home after 70 years of brainwashing and torture. The means had justified the ends. What was the worst that could happen? She’d reasoned. She’d already been declared dead, and separated from her ranch, what could be worse than that?

Maggie snorted. Dumbass.

She’d been warned, she’d been warned repeatedly, and now she was paying the price. She wasn’t just dead legally, but now in Wakanda, she was legally in limbo. She couldn’t leave because any number of world governments would be happy to pick her brain, and then make her more than just dead on paper. Yet, Maggie couldn’t help but balk at the fact that she’d been freer in Juarez of all places to choose her destiny than she was now.

She’d been happy in Juarez. As much as anyone can be happy in a virtual war zone. She’d had a purpose and was making solid, effective change. And yeah sure, the cartels wanted her dead, but if the cartels didn’t want you dead where you really being effective? The point being she’d been the master of her own fate for the first time in a long time, and had very purposefully not reached out to anyone to be “found” or “rescued.” She didn’t want to be found. She didn’t want to be rescued. She’d been prepared to die to get those girls out. That was okay with her. She’d been doing what she thought was right, and wasn’t being used by anyone.

Then somehow, James Barnes had dragged her back into this mess.

It wasn’t his fault. Maggie knew that on a fundamental level. He hadn’t asked to be framed, he hadn’t wanted to be tortured and mind-controlled by Nazis for seventy years. Yet, Maggie found that she had focused all of her ire, all her anger, all of her pent up frustration on the man, and on a single phrase.

Is there anything else?

He may as well have asked, “Is that all?” As if her life’s work over the past two years meant nothing. As if it was superfluous.

Truth be told, it hadn’t meant a damn thing. It had taken a terrorist attack, and worldwide man hunt to finally bring the Winter Soldier in. Everything she’d done, everything she’d learned, in the end, had meant absolutely nothing. To believe anything else would be nothing short of outright delusional. But it had meant something to her. Wasn’t that worth anything?

No.

It wasn’t worth anything, and he’d told her as much. The thought alone left a bitter taste in her mouth.

It was supposed to be easier once we found him. She wanted to scream. But nothing had been easier, not one single goddamn thing, and now she was stuck here for the foreseeable future, and the one person with any point of familiarity was a man who had played a hand in ruining her life.

She wanted to talk to Sam or Natasha, or even Steve, someone, anyone who would or could provide insight, and guidance on what she should do, or should even be thinking. She wanted someone she could confide in, who would listen, who wouldn’t judge her for the shit she was trying to work through.

Lifting her head out of her hands, Maggie wiped at her face and the tears streaming down her cheeks.

How could I have been so stupid?

Was it stupidity to want acknowledgment for her sacrifices and work? Was it stupid of her to think that maybe he might have some kind of reaction to seeing her for the first time in two years after she’d been declared dead by Hydra?

How long had he known that she was alive? Did he care? Had he given her a second thought after he’d left the ranch? Did he give a shit that she’d lost everything because of him? She didn’t know, and it didn’t seem like she would be getting that answer any time soon.

What was worse was that Maggie was a liar. She’d known she was a liar before, but now she knew for sure. She had told Barnes that she didn’t want anything from him, and now she knew that was wholly and completely untrue.

This isn’t about me or what I’m feeling, this is about giving Barnes the information that I’ve collected on him. That doesn’t need to be complicated by my feelings on the matter.

That’s what she’d reasoned, that’s what she’d told herself, that’s what had gotten her through their interaction. But as soon as he’d walked away with her journals, as soon as he’d left with two years of her life and more horrible memories than she cared to think about, she knew she was lying to herself.

Maggie wanted to know if her sacrifice had been worth it. She wanted to know if the man she had sacrificed her livelihood, life, sanity, and freedom to had been worth it. She wanted to know if there was anything of the charming man who had been Becca’s brother left. If something remained of the good, brave, and honorable man Steve Rogers loved and admired. If there had been a good person in the man, Natasha had known as the Winter Soldier. She wanted to know if anything she had learned about the person, rather than the weapon that Hydra had built and deployed with efficiency and deadly force, was still in there somewhere.

That’s what she wanted. A response. An answer to that question. Yet, since she’d handed off the journals four days ago, she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of James Barnes.

No news would’ve been good news in any other circumstance. Perhaps he hadn’t read them. It was always a possibility that he didn’t want to know what she’d found out or didn’t care what she knew. That was always an option. One that he could choose to make. After all, that was what she’d written in her letter. Choice, she was giving him a choice.   

What about me? The selfish voice in the back of her head screamed. Don’t I matter? Don’t I get a choice in this continuously fucked up situation?

Maggie shook her head. It wasn’t any use thinking like that. There was no point. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right. She’d learned that a long time ago. It didn’t matter how much she raged at the universe, it wouldn’t change anything. No matter what she did, the universe would continue to spin on.

She wiped her face and pulled her gloves back on and returned to work.

Maggie had only managed a few more hammer strikes when she paused at the sound of approaching footsteps and a wheel cart.

Her stomach turned. Fuck.

Turning, she found none other than James Buchanan Barnes walking up the path with a heavily laden mule cart.

Speak of the actual fucking devil.

He hadn’t seen her, yet, and Maggie was glad for the opportunity to give him a once over without those eyes boring into her, doing an evaluation of their own.

He was still broad-shouldered like he’d been On Last Chance, but now he walked without the familiar gait, due to the missing metal prosthesis. His hair was grown out and had been pulled back in a half up half down style. His face was fuller than it had been when he’d been on the ranch with her, and he had the beginnings of what could eventually be considered a respectable beard. His expression was firm, almost grim, as he walked up the winding path toward the feed barn and workshops where she was standing. He was wearing practical clothing like he’d been at their meeting at her dwelling. Work boots, pants, a sleeveless button-down, and a scarf tied around his neck to hide the stub of what remained of the Winter Soldier Prosthesis.

Maggie searched and searched, looking for some scrap, some ounce of the man she’d seen in Becca’s photographs or in Steve’s drawings, but only saw Matt, the man in her barn, his eyes cold, and sharp and critical as they’d been before.

What had he seen in his evaluation of her the other day? She didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to know if she’d somehow managed to look even more like a sad husk of a human being than she already had been back when he’d known her on the ranch.

Then her mind turned to the next logical question. Why is he even here?

The Cart. Her brain supplied. Fuck. Feed delivery.

Was it Tuesday already? Barnes had told here that he delivered feed to Jelani every Tuesday. Jelanai had even mentioned that there was going to be a feed delivery today.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Maggie froze. She couldn’t deal with him, not like this, not right now, when she’d obviously just been crying. Perhaps he hadn’t seen her. Maybe she could duck out of his line of sight, and he’d just deliver the feed and go away.

Now you’re being stupid. You’re a goddamn adult, you need to behave like a goddamn adult. Besides, if he’s read the journals, you might get what you’re looking for.

“What?” Maggie asked, and she realized that he’d spoken to her.

“I asked if Jelani was around," Barnes said evenly.

“No.” Maggie managed. “No, He had to run into town. But he showed me where to put the feed.”

Barnes nodded, moving wordlessly with the cart and mule to the feed shed. Maggie set the hammer and clamp down and joined him at the feed shed, swinging opened the door, they started to offload the cart into the shed.

Suddenly it was like they were back on Last Chance, and although he was now down a limb, still moved with a silent, deadly, purpose.

I must have been out of my goddamn mind. I should’ve called the cops on this guy the minute I saw him. She couldn’t help but think as she watched him out of the corner of her eye. It would’ve saved me a helluva lot of trouble. It was a terrible thing to think, something that she’d thought a lot in those dark days after Becca had passed. Something that she’d been thinking a lot over the past few days too. She wished she didn’t think that, wished that she could be as selfless now as she’d apparently been back when he’d been on the ranch with her. But the bitter little voice in the back of her head couldn’t help but whisper all of the cold, bitter terrible things into her ear.

He was sick and hurt, and in trouble, you did what you thought was right.

There she was, the little noble voice in the back of her head, feeble now, and very very small.

Is there anything else? That’s what he had said when she’d handed over all that she had to show for the last two and a half years of her life.

And nothing she had done mattered.

“Can do.” She auto responded, her mind filling in the blanks of the conversation. Maggie stopped. No, that wasn’t right.

Looking up, she found that Barnes was staring at her, a perplexed expression on his face.

Obviously, her response hadn’t made any sense. Fuck. Her mind scrambled, trying to replay what her ears had obviously heard, but that her brain hadn’t processed.

“Heyi! White Wolf!”

Maggie was saved by Jelani, an older Wakandan man, wearing the now-familiar orange and black pattern of the plainsmen, his teenage son Sisay following behind him. Both of them were carrying heavy packs as they approached the workshop and shed.

“Come help an old man, White Wolf," Jelani instructed, waving him over.

They exchanged some rapid words in Wakandan, which Maggie didn’t understand or speak, as they unloaded the large packs. Maggie hesitated, uncertain if she should ask to be excused, wait for a dismissal, or just excuse herself.

“Heyi, Cowgirl!” Maggie’s attention turned to Jelani.

“Ewe?” She stammered out in some of the only Wakandan she’d managed to pick up thus far.

“Grab the extra pair of goat hoof clippers and a good rasp.” He said shortly.

Maggie nodded and wordlessly did as instructed, a furious, red hot blush rise on her cheeks. They were both watching her as she went into the workshop, and riffled around through the toolbox. Why was she embarrassed? She hadn’t done anything wrong or even remotely embarrassing. It was because she was off balance and off-kilter. If this had been the ranch back home, she wouldn’t feel this way. She’d be in control of herself and know what she was doing. But this wasn’t back home, this wasn’t her ranch, her workshop. Instead, she was a guest, a stranger, an employee. Not that’s she minded any of that. She just knew that there were certain expectations of an employee rather than as someone self-employed doing the work they wanted.

She collected the requested items and returned outside, where Barnes and Jelani were still talking.

“Excellent, this will do well for Omondi. Tell him that he can borrow them, but I’ll want them back before the end of the week.” Jelani explained, taking the tools from her and placing them directly in the back of the mule cart that had previously contained the feed. “White Wolf, you have met Cowgirl before, yes?”

Maggie turned to the old man, who was watching them with intrigue.

“Yes.” Barnes said shortly.

“Good. Good. I am leaving her in charge of my shop when I am out attending calls. My son is learning the trade, too, since he will take it over when he is old enough.” Jelani clapped Sisay on the back, beaming with pride.

Maggie could feel her stomach sink with dread. The question hadn’t been random. Nor had the follow-up statement. Jelani knew what he was doing. He wanted to see if they’d been introduced because she would be dealing directly with Barnes for the weekly feed delivery. She would be the one running errands, or around to answer questions, or whatever if and when Jelani was away from the village, which judging from what she had seen over the past few days was quite a bit. She would be dealing directly with Barnes regularly, and Jelani wanted to know if they would be able to do so. Great.

How much did the old man know? How much had the Wakandas been told about the history between her and Barnes? Of course, they’d assume there was some sort of connection but had T’Challa or Shuri, or any number of the Wakandan military and intelligence brass given out a briefing packet? Or had they been left to assume and fill in the blanks on their own?

“That sound good, Cowgirl?” Jelani inquired.

Did she have a choice? Could she say no? Probably, but to what end? She was out here in the countryside rather than cooped up in a palace apartment by the good graces of the King and of this man. What good would it do to be difficult? None absolutely none.

“Yeah.” She nodded. “That sounds good.”

Maggie glanced over at Barnes, who was watching her with those piercing blue eyes, cold and critical. Say something goddamn it. She wanted to scream. Say something, acknowledge me! Acknowledge why I’m here! Acknowledge that you ruined my life, you bastard! She wanted to shake him by the shoulders until she shook his head clean from his shoulders.

“Excellent. I will let you get back to your rounds, have a good day.” Jelani told Barnes pleasantly.

“Thank you, I will pass the tools off to Omondi as soon as I get back. Have a good day.” He said, directing his gaze at her. “Ramirez.” He nodded simply.

“Barnes.” She nodded again.

“See around then, White Wolf.” Jelani waved him off, and they stood in silence as Barnes led the cart and mule away and out of sight.

So she was going to be seeing him with even more frequency than she’d initially expected.

How the fuck am I going to manage that?

Maggie didn’t know. She hadn’t been able to hold a conversation with the man, and she couldn’t imagine it was going to get any better the longer things went on.

It was supposed to be easier once we found him.

Her brain kept coming back to that thought, to that perceived truth that Maggie had built up in her mind the entire two and a half years that she’d been looking for the guy. It wasn’t supposed to get harder, it wasn’t supposed to be more complicated.

It doesn’t matter what it was supposed to be, this is it, this is the reality. She decided finally.

Why didn’t he say something? Say anything? It couldn’t be that hard, could it? “I read the journals. They were useful, thank you.” It wasn’t that hard, was it? It could be something as simple as that.

She wanted closure. But then again, what she wanted wasn’t important.

She shook her head, turning back toward the workshop. “You don’t have a problem working with Barnes, do you?” She glanced over at Jelani, who was still watching her intently.

“No.” She shook her head. I can be professional, I can be civil, I can be goddamn chipper if I have to be.

“You and him have a history together," Jelani said, knowingly.

Understatement of the millennium. “Something like that," Maggie answered.

“Have you eaten lunch yet?” Jelani inquired, changing the subject.

Her stomach growled, answering the question for her.

“Come,” Jelani said, clapping her on the back, Teela has made more than enough, you should take a break before the mid day heat settles in too much.”

Maggie nodded as he led her wordlessly toward his family’s dwelling, which was situated under a large, lush cluster of trees.

This was all going to take some adjustment. The living situation, the working situation, the Barnes situation. Maggie was going to have to grin and bear all of it for a while until she got used to it, or it resolved itself. There wasn’t any other choice, presently. Besides, if Barnes could act like there was nothing wrong, and that all of this was normal and peachy, then so could she. After all, she had said that she didn’t want anything out of him, even if that was the absolute farthest thing from the truth.

Chapter Text

Bucky was sitting out in the pasture, the massive grasslands seemed to stretch on forever, and had grass so green it looked nearly blue in the bright sun. It had been over a week and a half since Magdalene Ramirez had arrived in Wakanda, almost a week since she’d given him the journals, and three days since he’d seen her at Jelani’s during the feed delivery.

He’d re-read the journals at least a dozen times. He hadn’t exactly been sleeping well and had been having more migraines. He wasn’t sure if there was any connection between Ramirez and the uptick in headaches, but he did know that he was still missing something key that would help him answer a number of questions. The journal, the letter, the photographs, and even Ramirez herself were all telling him different things.

Bucky sighed, shaking his head, his eyes trained on his small herd of goats a dozen or so yards away. He wished Steve were here. Things might be easier if Steve was around to mediate. Or not even mediate, just help translate what was going on so that he could understand how the hell he was supposed to respond. Ramirez, for her part, had been distracted, cold, and short with her interactions during the feed delivery. She’d also looked like she’d just been crying. Steve would’ve had more luck talking to her than he’d had recently. Though how effective Steve would’ve been in getting Bucky the answers he was looking for remained to be seen. This was the guy who’s first reaction to Ramirez asking to speak with Bucky had been, “I’ll handle it.”

He’d wanted to ask about the journals, he wanted to say thank you, he wanted to apologize for...well everything, but it hadn’t seemed like the appropriate time or place. She hadn’t seemed like she wanted to talk to him anyway, and she didn’t owe him her time or energy, particularly after everything that she’d been through because of him. Anyway, Jelani had been around, and Bucky certainly didn’t want to drag out his business with Ramirez in front of the Wakandans if at all possible, if not out of respect for his hosts, then out of respect for Ramirez.

Despite himself, Bucky did want to talk to her. He wanted to ask about the photographs that she'd left in the pages of the journals, each picture tucked into the corresponding entry. The snapshot from Ramirez’s birthday party had been of particular interest, the one of Ramirez and his sister. Had she meant to leave that in the journal, or had it been an oversight on her part? What did she know about his relationship with Steve or Romanoff for that matter? What did she think of what Hydra had done to him? What about what he had done?

His questions were endless, but that didn’t mean she owed him an explanation.

It had taken him everything he had to not to walk over to the horse village in the middle of the night after he’d read through the journals a second time and found that he had even more questions than after the first read-through. After all, Ramirez had said in her letter that she was willing and able to answer any questions he might have. But just because she’d said she was willing, didn’t mean that she wanted to, it didn’t mean that he should ask. Besides, when would he have the chance to talk to her outside of when she was working or around Jelani, Sisay, or any of the other Wakandans? Would there ever be an appropriate time to talk about his sister, about his past, about their shared history? He didn’t know.

Bucky grimaced, looking down at his journal, and tapped his pen against the blank page. He really should try to write it out in the journal. It might help him think through all of this mess before he inflicted it upon Ramirez. He’d been writing more since Ramirez arrived, mostly trying to piece together what he’d lost in the journals that had been confiscated in Berlin from what she had written in her own. She’d been very thorough, although admittedly she hadn’t found out everything, or if she had, she’d kept it to herself and not recorded it in the pages she’d given him.

He stopped, pausing at the sound of unfamiliar footfalls. His mind raced as he slowly honed in on the sound, his eyes squeezed shut. It wasn’t the kids. There wasn’t more than one pair. It wasn’t the King and the Dora, the King rarely ventured out this far, and never without a guard of some kind. Nor was it the princess. She had a sort of spring, skip to her step, and rarely wore hard-soled shoes, and it definitely wasn’t Steve. Yet Bucky knew he had heard that particular gait before.

Looking up and opening his eyes, Bucky found Ramirez cutting across the field. She was about halfway between the two tree lines that framed the pasture when she stopped, turned around, and took a few steps. Then, she stopped again, shook her head, muttered something under her breath before she turned back around, marching back the way she’d come.

She’s lost. He realized. Shit. How the hell was he going to announce his presence without causing a scene? He couldn’t exactly just let her wander around the Wakandan countryside lost. Closing his journal and stowing it and the pen in his satchel, he rose to his feet. “You Lost?” He called, doing his best to project his voice without sounding like he was shouting.

Ramirez froze, before turning around to face him. “Hi.” She said shortly.

“You lost?” He repeated as he walked toward her.

“I think I got a little turned around. Which way to Omondi’s? Jelani sent me for the tools he let him borrow.” Ramirez replied, her expression tense, her whole body coiled as if ready for an oncoming attack.

She was headed toward his village? She’d been walking in the opposite direction and was now over two miles away from where she needed to be. “Do you have your Kimoyo bracelet on you? I could mark a waypoint for you?” Bucky asked hesitantly.

“I don’t.”

Well, that made things more complicated. He’d either have to explain it to her and hope she got it right or he’d have to show her the way himself. Which, based on her body language wasn’t something she’d be interested in doing. “You’re about two miles away from where you need to be if you take the shortest path.” He explained, “But the best-marked path is about three miles.”

Ramirez exhaled sharply, looking down at the ground, muttering a few key curse words to herself. “So I am really lost then, aren’t I?” She sighed, looking back up at him and addressing him directly.

“I can show you the way. I needed to head back that way soon anyway.” He paused as the rumble of thunder interrupted him. “If there’s a thunderstorm coming, you’d be better off coming with me anyway.”

Something crossed her face, Bucky wasn’t sure if it was anger or resignation, but it was only a momentary lapse in control that she had. Her features resumed their cool neutral expression before he could quite pinpoint what he was seeing, or rather what he wasn’t seeing. “I don’t want to bother you.”

“We’re going in the same direction.” Bucky replied, “Although I do have goats with me, it might take a little bit longer.”

There was a brief paused as she debated with herself, before she answered evenly, “If you’re already headed that direction, I can follow you.”

There hadn’t even been an uptick in her tone, no use of sarcasm, no angry drawl. Her tone was smooth, even, and controlled. Controlled, of course, being the operative word. His eyes flickered only a moment to her hands, which were down by her side, and balled into fists. Ramirez was coiled, like a snake in the grass, like she’d been when confronting Roberts. Was she expecting a fight from him? No. Controlled. She was controlling her expression, her tone, even her body. Was she going to fight him? She was accepting his help. So that it couldn’t be it, could it? Bucky didn’t know, and as thunder continued rumbling overhead, he knew he needed to get the goats back to their hutch before the storm arrived, he didn’t have time to guess at what Ramirez was thinking at the moment.

“Follow me, the storm is moving fast, and we’ll need to be out of the jungle before it arrives.” He instructed firmly, picking up the stick he’d been using to prod the goats, though they generally had a mind of their own.

Ramirez nodded, following behind him in silence.

They walked through the field, collecting his small herd of six goats before they started down the goat path that would lead them the fastest back to the village. Ramirez didn’t say a word as they walked, single file down the trail. The goats walked in front, and he followed, pushing them along. Behind him, Ramirez brought up the rear. She was keeping a good pace, walking five to ten yards behind him. Her breathing was even, her gait consistent. She didn’t say a word.

Now would be the perfect time to talk, middle of the woods, no Wakandans around, you’re not going to get another chance like this.

Bucky wasn’t stupid. Something was going on, and he got the distinct feeling that bringing anything up related to their history wouldn’t end well, or at the very least, wasn’t going to go the way that he would’ve wanted. Yet at the same time, there was something expectant hanging in the air, as if Ramirez was waiting for him to say something. Waiting for him to ask. Waiting for some kind of misstep. Waiting for a reason to unleash the pent up fury behind her expression upon him.

He’d deserve it. There was no doubt about it, but the value of bringing down such wrath upon him right now in the middle of the jungle seemed minimal. So although Bucky might deserve it, he didn’t want to give her a reason to employ it, at least until they made it back to the village.

The thunder grew louder overhead, the crackle of lighting making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge. He picked up the pace, and wordlessly Ramirez matched it. Then the rain came, first as a light mist, before it started pouring down around them in thick heavy droplets, quickly soaking through his clothes and hair.

“You still with me back there?” He asked, without glancing over his shoulder at her, his focus primarily on his goat, and making sure they stayed together.

“Fine. Just great.” She drawled, though her voice was barely audible over the sound of the downpour.

“Watch your step, the path is steep up ahead, and it’s going to be slick with the rain," Bucky warned.

The goats ahead of him were light and nimble, and they moved easily, and quickly, despite the terrain and weather. Humans, on the other hand, were not quite as adept at navigating in the same conditions. The last thing either of them needed was to slip and fall and bust-

This thought was interrupted by a short scream and ample swearing. Stopping, he turned to see Ramirez on the ground, lying flat on her back

“You alright?” He asked.

“Damn it,” She muttered, sitting up, rubbing the back of her head.

“You alright?” Bucky repeated over the sound of thunder.

“I’m fine,” She bit out flatly, as she did an inventory of her physical state.

 Bucky paused, doing an evaluation of his own. She didn’t look to be seriously hurt. Upon initial scan, he didn’t see any broken bones or blood, although if she did have something more severe than just a few scrapes and bruises, they’d be in a lot of trouble.

There was another low rumble of thunder, followed by lightning that flashed so bright it illuminated the entire jungle. They were getting ready to have several problems in a moment if they delayed any longer. “Can you walk?”

She looked up at him, her expression furrowed. “What?”

“Can you walk?’ He repeated. “The rain’s only going to get worse as the storm rolls through.”

 “I...I...don’t know. Probably?” She grimaced. “I think. I think I twisted my ankle.” She rose shakily to her feet, testing her ankle, she winced. Pausing, Ramirez looked up and met his gaze. “You don’t have to wait. I’ll be right behind you.” She said firmly, putting her foot down solidly.

It was convincing, and Bucky almost would have bought it, if not for the fact that her whole body shook, and her face was sheet white as she took a couple faltering steps forward for good measure.

“Come on.” She said, limping down the path. “As you said, this is only going to get worse. I’m fine.”

“You shouldn’t be walking on that ankle.”

 “Well, I don’t exactly see any other choice, presently, Barnes.” She replied through gritted teeth, barely forcing back a whimper as she applied more pressure than her ankle or pain tolerance could take.

He would’ve admired her stubbornness had he not been in the middle of an African jungle, in the rain, with six goats, one arm, and one very angry, frustrated woman. The ankle was going to slow them down, the Goats were going to get spooked the longer they stayed out here, and he couldn’t very well abandon either party. He’d have one hell of a time explaining how and why they’d all been swept away in a thunderstorm. “Let me carry you.”

Ramirez laughed a harsh, choked laugh. “Jeezus Christ. This is really happening, isn’t it?” She shook her head before hobbling a few more feet. Stopping, she sighed, lifting her face to the canopy above, mouthing something under her breath before she looked back at him. “Fine.” She said tersely, surveying him with a critical expression. “As you’re down an arm, you’re going to have to fireman carry my sorry ass, aren’t you?”

Bucky had to hide his surprise. He hadn’t had to convince her. He hadn’t had to ask more than once or wait for her to fall again so he could scoop her up and throw her over his shoulder while she thrashed. All things being equal, this was going a lot better than he’d imagined it might have otherwise. “Sorry.”

“We’ll move faster that way. Can’t exactly see me using you as a crutch.” She sighed, wiping her face with the back of her sleeve, only smearing dirt and vegetation across her forehead. “Let’s get this over with, shall we, Mr. Barnes?”

They talked through their plan of approach, and while they maneuvered awkwardly, Ramirez was deceivingly light and surprisingly cooperative. After a brief adjustment on the part of both parties, he was walking with her over his shoulders.

Trudging along in silence, watching his step, and keeping a watchful eye on the goats, Bucky was aware of the seething energy that was coming off Ramirez. She was trembling, from the cold rain that poured down around them, but there was palpable, visceral anger that filled the silence between them.

Should I ask if something’s wrong?

No. That never worked well with dames. Not that Ramirez was a dame, but she certainly was angry, and asking her directly might not be the best way to defuse the situation at present.

If I don’t ask, then how the hell am I going to figure out what’s wrong? The best course of action for the moment would be to focus on the path and get them back to his hut safely. Once he got her back on her own two feet, then they could have that discussion. Maybe.

“You still with me, Ramirez?” He asked.

“Mhh, Hmm.” She mumbled. Nodding, she made no other motion.

 “We’re almost to my place. I can get the village healer to take a look at it when the rain lets up.” Bucky continued feeling almost compelled to say something to the woman lying across his shoulders.

Ramirez didn’t respond, holding perfectly still as he traversed the narrow, steep, and rocky path. He could hear her breathing, practically feel her heart pounding, her body tense, her hands clenched around a wad of his scarf. She was shaking. Bucky couldn’t help but think about how close they were and couldn’t help but be reminded of the last time they’d been in close proximity together. The small little outbuilding when she’d patched him up. He’d been afraid, terrified if he was honest, and had been moments away from losing all self-control and making a run for it. He could’ve hurt her. He could’ve killed her, even unintentionally.

Is she frightened of me?

Certainly anger had crossed his mind, she had plenty of reason to be angry, but fear? That, for whatever reason, hadn’t occurred to him. She hadn’t been frightened of him that day in the outbuilding, though she’d certainly had plenty of reason to be. A lot had happened since then. She knew more now about him than she had then. She didn’t seem frightened, but that could be for any number of reasons.

“This is okay, right?” He asked softly.

Ramirez shifted slightly, her breathing changed. “It could be worse,” she chuckled humorlessly.

“Am I hurting you?” That’s what she’d asked him, every step of the way.

“No.” She shook her head. There was a pause, and for a brief moment Bucky was sure she was going to follow it up with something else, but the moment passed, and nothing else came.

Bucky said nothing, there was nothing more to be said.

When they arrived at his hut, he eased her down onto her feet, under the small awning. “I’m going to pen the goats in their hutch. You can head inside and try and get dry.” He instructed

Without waiting for a response, he charged to the goat hutch, where all six of them had gathered of their own accord and were waiting for him to shut the door after them. “You’re smart.” He commented, glancing over his shoulder at Ramirez, who was leaning against the hut, trying to remove her boots. “Smarter than I am.” He added.

Latching and securing the gate, he crossed the yard to where Ramirez was still struggling.“It’ll be easier when you’re sitting,” He motioned with his head to the interior, she shot him a cold look. “You can wait out in the storm if you like, but it’ll warmer and dryer inside.” Bucky said, taking a step back.

“I was trying to get my boots off, so I don’t track mud into your living space.” Ramirez bit out flatly.

“Wouldn’t worry about it. It’ll be easier once you're sitting down and somewhere with better light.” He replied.

She surveyed him, her expression perfectly and completely even. “Why are you doing this, Barnes?”

“What?”

Ramirez snorted, shaking her head. “The man carries me down a goddamn mountain in the rain, and he asks what?” She muttered, rolling her eyes.

“I would’ve had a hard time explaining to Wilson, Rogers, and the Wakandans why I’d left you on the mountain during a thunderstorm.”

“I’d imagine that would be tricky.” Her voice practically dripped with sarcasm.

Which meant she still wasn’t convinced. Bucky didn’t know how to respond. “You helped me out of a tight spot once.” Then I left you for dead. He couldn’t help but add mentally. “I do owe you one.”

“Right. That.” The bitterness and anger in her voice were palpable. “I did say you don’t owe me anything.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Really now?” Ramirez practically laughed.

“You took in a sick, starving, frightened man, and you lost everything. That warrants at the very least an apology and a bit of gratitude on my part.”

She dropped her head down, still trying to pry off her boots, muttering something under her breath.

 Thunder rumbled, and the rain poured down even harder, and Bucky wanted nothing more than to head inside, dry off and put on a pot of coffee, but he knew that if he didn’t say what he needed to be said, now, there wouldn’t be another opportunity.

 “I am sorry, and I am grateful.” He paused, thinking about the letter, about what she’d said. Not just that he didn’t owe her anything, but also that she was a receptacle of knowledge and memory and that she could provide an explanation or elaboration upon request.

Did she feel obligated to him? Did she feel like she owed him that? Did she feel like because she’d spent two and a half years collecting information about him that she somehow was obligated to explain herself and her reasoning behind all of it? Did she feel like he didn’t owe her an apology for his actions? Just because he’d been brainwashed? Just because she’d been friends with his Sister and Steve? He didn’t know, but he couldn’t let it stand.

“I know there’s nothing I can do that’s going to change the past or make up for what happened to you because of me. But you don’t owe me a goddamn thing, Ramirez. Not your time, energy, or your forgiveness, regardless of who I was to Becca, or who I am to Steve. I’ve taken up two and a half years of your life. You don’t owe me any more of it.”

Thunder rumbled, so loud that Bucky could feel it vibrate in his chest. Then there was silence. Had he overstepped? Had he said the wrong thing? He held his breath, waiting for her to respond.

After a moment, Ramirez stopped trying to pry her boot off, her hands pausing in their motion, and Bucky could swear that he saw her exhale, a long, slow, and massive breath as if she’d been holding it, locked up inside of her. Some of the tension eased from her shoulders, and her jawline smoothed somewhat.

 “Any chance I could get you to help me with these boots, Barnes?” She said weakly, looking up at him. Her expression was still cool and calculated, but the lines that had previously creased her features had softened somewhat. “I think my ankle has swollen, and my hand is having a hell of a time with these clasps.”

Bucky nodded, “Let’s get inside. I’ll get you a towel, and I can work on the boots.”

“I still don’t want to track mud into your house, Barnes.”

“The floor is dirt. Mud isn’t a problem, Ramirez.”

Ramirez chuckled, this time not-unkindly, and nodded, “Alright, after you then.”

“You first.” He motioned with his hand.

She rolled her eyes, but nodded, limping into the hut in front of him.

Bucky followed cautiously behind her. “You can sit down anywhere. I’ll get a pot of coffee going, and find you something to dry off with.” He said, now suddenly aware of how small the living space in the hut was, particularly with another non-Steve person occupying it with him.

He and Steve were used to cramped quarters, but sharing that same space with a less familiar and likely hostile party was a little tricker. Looking up, he met Ramirez’s gaze. “It’s a little small, isn’t it?” She said knowingly.

“Yeah.” He nodded.

Ramirez’s eyes scanned the hut before she settled down by the entryway. “Not so bad for one person, but two people is a bit much.” She commented, as her hands resumed their work on her boots.

“You still want my help with boots?” Bucky asked.

“Well, now that you’ve mentioned coffee, I think I’d rather you focus your efforts there. These boots will come off eventually.” She said, gritting her teeth, her hands working the wet and mud-caked buckles of her boots.

Bucky nodded, and they both set about their tasks in silence. Or near silence, as Ramirez muttered and swore under her breath until the boots tugged off, followed by very wet socks.

 “Yup. That’s swollen.” She cringed, poking gingerly at the inflamed joint.

“As soon as the rain lets up, I’ll get the village healer.”

“And Jelani’s tools.” She added.

“Huh?” He looked up at her from the coffee pot, which had just started bubbling.

 “That is why I ended up here if you recall.”

“Right.” He nodded. Stopping, He turned to the little side table and slipped on his Kimoyo bracelet. “Damn. I should wear this thing more.” He muttered as no less than fifteen messages appeared. “They’re about to send a search party out for you, Ms. Ramirez.” He said, addressing her curious gaze.

“Oh. Damn.”

“I’ll let them know that you’re with me, that you’re safe, and that you’ll be headed back as soon as the rain clears.”

“Much appreciated.”

Bucky nodded. Sending off the message, and he quietly poured two steaming mugs of coffee, aware that Ramirez was watching him intently. “How do you take it?” He asked.

“Black.” She answered. “Can I steal your blanket? I’m freezing.”

“Please. I’m sure the coffee will help too.” He replied, looking up, saw Ramirez dragging the boarder tribe blanket to her, wrapping it around herself before he handed over the mug of coffee.

She took it in both hands, her fingertips brushing his in the exchange. Looking down, she blew gently on the bitter black liquid before taking a sip. “It’s good.” She said, looking back up, met his gaze.

“I’m glad.”

Ramirez surveyed him. “How are you not freezing? Do you want me to close my eyes so you can change into something not completely soaking wet?” She inquired.

“I run a little warmer than most.” He paused. “Which I guess you already knew.” He added.

“Yeah.” She nodded in agreement, “I guess I did.”

There was a long award pause, as Bucky tried to figure out what to say next. His eyes drifted around the small hut, doing his best not to focus on Ramirez, and fell on the journals, stacked neatly on the side table beside her. “You were very thorough.” He said.

“What?”

He motioned with his chin to the journals.

“Oh. Right. That.” She said. “You’ve read them?”

The surprise in her voice took him aback. Did she think he hadn’t? That he wouldn’t? Well, he hadn’t exactly given her any indication that he’d read them, had he?

“Multiple times.”

“Really?” She said, again, surprise in her voice and on her features.

He nodded again.

“You must have questions.”

“As I said, you were very thorough.” He had a thousand questions he wanted to ask, a multitude of things, but at the given moment, he didn’t want to push his luck with Ramirez. Particularly since it appeared they were finally getting on slightly better terms than they’d been before.

Ramirez nodded, settling further into the folds of the blanket, took another sip of coffee. Something was at work behind her features as if she was trying to puzzle through a particularly tricky problem. “You must think all of this is strange.” She commented, motioning to the journals with the top of her head.

Bucky frowned, not entirely sure of her meaning.

“A dead woman helping your best friend track you down, and meticulously recording the whole thing?”         

“It’s not as strange as you might think, all things considered.” He couldn’t help but think of everything he’d learned about her when he’d thought she was dead. Though, he wasn’t ready to talk about that quite yet.

Ramirez nodded slowly, her eyes bright with curious intrigue. “How long have you known?”

“What?”

“That I wasn’t actually dead.”

“January.”

“How’d you figure it out?” She asked before taking another sip of the coffee.

“My sister’s obituary photograph. You were in one of the back rows.”

“So I was.” She nodded. “I was wondering if someone was going to figure that out.” Ramirez shook her head, “So you know that I knew your sister.”

“I’d gathered as much from the picture before Steve told me last week.”

“She was a wonderful woman.”

A pain twisted in Bucky’s chest, and he nodded. “Yeah, she certainly seemed like it.”

There was a long pause, both of them wrapped up in their thoughts as rain pounded against the roof of the hut.

“You must have some questions for me.”

“A few.” She replied.

“You can ask. If you want. Though I can’t promise that I can answer all of them.”

Ramirez nodded, “I think that’s more than fair.” She paused, chewing on the inside of her mouth absently a moment she proceeded, her gaze focused on a point just behind him, and even further away than the human eye could comprehend. “When you were on the run, you saved several women from street harassment, attempted rape, and the like.”

“Yeah. I did.” He’d almost forgotten about that, and it was practically buried in her journals under everything else. “How’d you figure that out?”

“The internet is a wonderful place, Barnes.” She chuckled, shaking her head.

“But that wasn’t your question.”

“No.” Ramirez agreed, “It wasn’t.”

“And?”

“Why’d you do it? You were on the run, any one of those incidents could’ve tipped us off to where you were. Why bother?”

Because of you. He would’ve said, but he had no idea how she would take that. But it was true. He’d left her to die at the hands of Hydra. He hadn’t wanted his inaction to cost anyone else their lives. It sounded stupid in his head, and that was where it was going to stay. “Because it was the right thing to do, and as you well know, I haven’t had many opportunities to chose to do the right thing in a while.”

“But even if it compromised you?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.” She echoed but said nothing further.

“Is that all you wanted to know, Ms. Ramirez?” Bucky ventured after a moment.

“Mhhh, hmmm.” She murmured into her cup, with a slight nod.

“Why?”

Ramirez looked up at him, her dark eyes surveying him, and for the first time since they’d been reacquainted in Wakanda, Bucky got the feeling that she wasn’t looking at him unkindly. Not that he deserved her kindness or had earned it in any way, but it was a change, and subtle though it was, Bucky felt like he could breathe again, like he wasn’t holding his breath, waiting for calamity to strike.

“Trying to make out your character, Mr. Barnes.” She answered finally.

And? He wanted to ask. What have you found? But he knew better than that. If he’d thought her expression had been icy before, he could only imagine how much frostier it would be if he pushed her too far now.

“So you really don’t have any questions you want to ask me while I’m trapped here waiting for the rain to stop? Nothing you want to know?” She asked, disbelief tinging her tone, a near smile almost crossing her expression.

“I do have questions, but none that need to be answered right now.” He shook his head.

Bucky would like nothing more than to ask her the thousands of questions he had running through his head, just to get them out. But as she’d said, she was trapped here, injured, and very much at his mercy. He wouldn’t take advantage of that kind of situation, even if he wanted to.

“I understand.” Ramirez nodded, glancing down into her mug. “Well, it isn’t warm milk.” She murmured, chuckled to herself.,

“Huh?” He asked before he could stop himself.

Ramirez cleared her throat and looked back up at him, “Can I have some more coffee?”

“Yeah, sure.” He took her mug and poured her another cup.

Warm milk. It was something his mother had always done. Warm milk was the cure to a variety of ills if you asked Mrs. Winifred Barnes. Bucky hadn’t remembered that until now, but why Ramirez had mentioned it he didn’t know. “I could steam some milk if you want, it might help take the chill off.”

“Oh.” She blushed, looking back down into the steam coming up off the coffee. “No. That really won’t be necessary.”

Okay, now Bucky had even more questions, but none that would be at all appropriate to ask. Had he said or done something to make her blush? What had she meant by “well, it isn’t warm milk?” Why did he feel like he was witnessing one side of a conversation that was simultaneously about him, yet had nothing to do with him at all. He didn’t know, but he did feel oddly relieved, somehow. She was sitting in his hut, drinking coffee, and they were having what could be considered a pleasant conversation. It was more than he could’ve hoped to expect, and unfortunately, it still felt like there was a catch. Like some dark cloud was looming over them, figuratively as well as literally.

Ramirez’s gaze had drifted back over to the journals, and fixated upon them. Something between nostalgia and pain crossed her features.

“You can have them back if you’d like.”

 “What?” Her head turned so fast and so hard Bucky thought that she might have snapped her neck.

“Your journals. You can have them back. I know you put a lot of time. It has all the photos. If you want them back.” He said.

“No. That won’t be necessary.” She shook her head. “I want you to have them, Barnes. The journals, the photos, the letter, I gave it to you. I want you to keep them,” Ramirez paused. “It might help you reclaim some of what you lost.”

Lost? Did she know that he’d lost the journals during the raid in Romania? Had Steve, the Princess, or the King told her? He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to ask at present. “If you’re sure.”

“If I never saw them again, it would be too soon.” She said.

“Understood.” Bucky nodded.

It didn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out why she’d feel that way, but it was odd to him that she didn’t at least want the photographs of her and Becca back. But, she said she wanted him to have it, all of it. So he wouldn’t push her any further.

Why her? Why of all people did she have to be the one to get dragged into all of this? Bucky wanted to ask. It didn’t make sense, and it certainly wasn’t fair, but he could rage at the universe about fairness all day, and it wouldn’t change anything. They could only deal with what they’d been given. All of the wishful thinking in the world wasn’t going to change anything.

“It looks like the rain is letting up," Ramirez commented after a long silence.

Bucky looked out the door and to the landscape beyond. It did indeed look like the rain was easing up, and the thunder and lightning seemed to have subsided completely. “How does your ankle feel?”

“Swollen. Probably sprained.” She answered grimly.

“All right.” he nodded, rising to his feet. “I’ll go get the healer, and then get the tools that Omondi borrowed from Jelani so you can get on your way.”

Ramirez watched silently as Bucky put his shoes back on, and he was nearly out the door when she spoke. “Barnes?”

“Yeah?” He stopped mid-stride and looked down at her.

“Thank you. For carrying me out of the jungle. I do appreciate not being left in the middle of the storm, despite what I said earlier.”

“I understand,” Bucky paused. He had so many questions, so many things he wanted to ask. Would this be the last and only time he would get the chance to ask? Or would they get another opportunity? He didn’t know, but he had gotten the most important thing out, he had apologized and said thank you, that at very least was something. If he only had one chance, he would be thankful he’d gotten to say that at the very least.

Blinking, he realized that Ramirez was still watching him expectantly. “I’ll be right back," he said shortly. Then without another word, he walked from the hut and out into the last remnants of the dying storm.

Chapter Text

The sun was warm and bright, and Maggie found herself sprawled out on her back, soaking up the warmth from under the shade of one of the many trees clustered around Jelani’s workshop.

It was lunchtime, and Jelani had all but forbidden her from doing any work between the hours of noon and two. So she’d brought her heavy plainsmen blanket, her frozen mango cubes (along with the rest of her lunch), and her water-skin so she could lay out in the shade in comfort as she watched the clouds roll by through the branches of the tree.

She was trying to practice some quiet mindfulness, even as she kept her ears open for the sound of a mule led feed delivery cart.

It was Tuesday, and it had been four days since her wet trek through the jungle with James Barnes. Their subsequent conversation replaying on loop in her head as she tried to understand what had happened and what the hell she was going to do now.

Maggie squeezed her eyes shut. She was exhausted, she’d been exhausted for a long time. Perhaps now that she had gotten this thing over with between her and Barnes, she could rest.

But it really hadn’t been settled had it? He’d apologized and acknowledged what she’d been through. He’d told her that she didn’t owe him anything. That was everything that she’d convinced herself she wanted. That should be the end of it. The operative word, of course, being should.

Only it wasn’t. It might have been if James Barnes had been the cold, heartless bastard she’d built him up to be in her mind.

In all fairness to her, she had been in the Winter Soldier Trenches for the last two years, and yeah, after the guy failed to materialize at his sister’s death bed, she’d formed some opinions. Never mind all of the horrible shit that had happened to her because of him.

But that hadn’t been his fault, and she’d tried to remind herself of that. He was a victim of Hydra. Yet, somehow, in all the anger and pain and sheer frustration that reminder, that truth had been obscured, and her brain had transformed Barnes into the convenient scapegoat.

Then he hadn’t been the heartless bastard she’d built him up to be in her mind. He was by no means the Romeo she’d built up in her mind before Becca’s death either. He was simply an unknown entity, and Maggie’s experience on the mountain had made her realize that she had both severely misjudged James Barnes and been tremendously unfair to both of them.

It was surprising to admit, and no one was more surprised than she was. She’d gone from irate to ambivalent in less than three weeks, and now she was waiting to see what would happen next.

Maggie opened her eyes and rolled onto her side. Picking up a mango cube from the little dish she’d brought with her, and popped it in her mouth chewing thoughtfully. She couldn’t help but think about what he’d said.

You don’t owe me a goddamn thing...I’ve taken up two and a half years of your life. You don’t owe me any more of it.

The bastard had used her own words against her. Maggie wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She didn’t know how to feel about any of it, but she did know that she wanted to talk to Barnes.

That, she knew, was because of Becca. She also knew that Becca was part of the reason she’d been so angry, part of the reason she was still hesitant to talk to Barnes, and part of the reason she still wanted to talk to Barnes. She knew that she didn’t owe Barnes an explanation. It was that she’d been given the memory of James Barnes, Becca’s memory of James Barnes so that Maggie could give him the message from his sister.

Your family did not forget you, and they loved you very much.

When Becca had told her that, Maggie had been willing to do exactly that for her friend, a woman that Maggie had loved with all of her heat. She’d wanted nothing more than to carry the memory of her friend’s older brother and carry her final message to him. Only then her head had been filled with fantastical accounts from the seventy-year-old memory of the man’s youngest sister. She hadn’t crossed the point of no return yet, hadn’t dug through the Winter Soldier’s history yet, hadn’t seen the chair and cryo-chamber in Argentina yet. Hadn’t witnessed, and read, and then dealt with the subsequent fall out of everything that had been perpetrated against and by the Winter Soldier.

Now she had. Now she had come face to face with the man that remained from those experiences. Now she was left to figure all of this out, and didn’t have the damndest clue how to honor her friend’s dying request.

Did Barnes want to talk to her about his sister? She knew now that he knew they were friends, that they’d been close while Maggie had been on the hunt for him. Was he as protective of Becca as she was? The only way to find out was to ask, and the only way she was going to be able to do that was when he showed up for feed delivery.

“Heyi, Cowgirl!" Maggie jerked into a sitting position at the sound of Jelani’s approach.

“Sir?”

The older man chuckled, shaking his head. “You can call me Jelani.” He said, stopping at the foot of her blanket. “How long has it been since you’ve been on a horse.”

“Years, sir, uhhh, Jelani.”

“That’s no good. Clean up your stuff and meet me by the paddock.” Maggie opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off. “You need to be in a Wakandan saddle, on a Wakandan horse before you shod any of my horses.”

Maggie couldn’t argue with that. She nodded and rose to her feet, collecting and packing away her things. Stowing them in the shop out of the way, she followed Jelani over to the paddock where there were two horses tied, saddled, and waiting for them.

“Pick whichever you like.” He said, motioning to the horses.

Maggie paused. Was this a test? It felt like a test. She glanced at Jelani and then at the horses before ducking between the fence slats and entering the paddock.

It was familiar, although it had been forever since she’d done this. With her herd back on Last Chance, they’d known what she was going to do before she did. Now, with these horses, in this place, she was dealing with unknown entities.

Seems to be a lot of that going around.

She stopped before she reached the horses, exhaling a long deep breath. Horses were good therapy animals for a reason, and she was about to have a very intense session if she didn’t check herself.

Check your emotions, or the horse will do it for you. She could practically hear herself say to one of her clients.

God, she missed them, she missed that part of running the ranch. She missed helping people, missed facilitating the deep relationship that many of her clients formed with the ranch horses. She missed it. Missed the community, missed her animals, missed the feeling of accomplishment.

“You okay, Cowgirl?” Jelani’s voice pulled her back.

“Yeah, sorry.” Maggie said, blinking she shook her head before she approached.

She did a quick but thorough evaluation of the horses, checking their hooves, flanks, mouths, and teeth, as well as surveying the tack. Stepping back, she put her hands on her hips and frowned, “Huh.”

“What is it, Cowgirl?”

“What’s the catch?”

“I don’t believe I understand.”

“This is a test, isn’t it?”

Jelani looked her over, “You think this is a test?”

What was she supposed to say? She thought it was a test, what other reason would there be for such an ordeal. “Yes.”

He nodded, his expression giving nothing away. “Choose a horse, Cowgirl.”

“Right.” She nodded. If it was a test, Jelani was going to keep it to himself. She turned to the two horses. One was a mare, one was a stallion, both were brown with white markings. Functionally there wasn’t a lick of difference between them. However, the mare had a calm sort of energy about her and a white spot that looked like a star between her eyes that made Maggie smile.

Approaching the horse, she extended her hand, before gently rubbing the horse’s head, and nose. “What’s her name?” Maggie asked absently as she untied the mare from the paddock fence.

“They don’t have names," Jelani said as he entered the paddock and untied the stallion.

“Is that some kind of Wakandan naming convention I should be aware of?” She inquired, glancing over at him.

“No. We let their first owners give them their names.” Jelani replied. “What do you think you’ll name them?”

Maggie paused as the words sunk in, opening and closing her mouth like a fish out water until she managed a simple “What?”

Jelani chuckled, leading the stallion from the paddock. “The King wanted to ensure you had a horse of your own to use for the duration of your stay. In honor of your name day, he instructed me to select two for you as a gift. Both as a birthday present and to welcome you into our community.”

“You mean.” Maggie stammered, glancing between Jelani and the two horses. “These are my horses?”

“Yes. You may stable them with my herd, but they are yours to do with as you please.” Jelani nodded.

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how I could ever repay you.” She said, her mind spinning.

The King, the King of Wakanda, had given her a pair of horses for her birthday? There was a lot to unpack just in that one sentence. First of all, what day was it? She hadn’t been keeping track, and apparently, her 33rd birthday had come and gone without thought or comment. Second of all, holy shit, she’d just been given two beautiful horses, and tack apparently, by the reigning monarch of a country that she would have been hard-pressed to place on a map two months ago. She didn’t know how she should respond.

“Put them to good use," Jelani replied, as he mounted the stallion with a grace and ease that she wouldn’t have expected from the man. “Come on. We’re going for a ride. We won’t be gone long.”

Nodding wordlessly, she adjusted the stirrups and climbed into the saddle. The front and back of the wooden saddle were higher than she was used to, but it was comfortable, and the fit was good.

“We’ll ride single file until we get to the grassland just over the next hill, then we’ll see what you’re made of," Jelani said, before urging his mount into a brusque walk, and Maggie followed behind.

They rode in silence as she and the horse became acquainted. The horse was tremendously well trained, and hyper responses to Maggie’s commands, to the point that she was almost convinced she could’ve controlled the horse without the use of the reigns at all.

Walking at a leisurely pace, Maggie leaned into the rhythm of the horse’s gait and could feel as the tension started to slip from her body.

She’d missed this. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed this. That last six months on the ranch she hadn’t gotten on a horse, just out of time and necessity, then she’d been in hiding, or on the run for the last two and a half years. It had been nearly three years since she’d been on a horse, which for someone who had spent a sizable portion of their life in the saddle felt like an eternity.

The sky was clear and a nearly impossible shade of blue, and white cotton candy clouds drifted slowly by while the warm wind cooled Maggie’s sun-kissed skin. Leaning her head back, she exhaled, a huge smile across her face. She might be halfway around the world, in a country that was not her own, in a place not of her own choosing, but on the back of this horse, it felt like going home, and she felt more like herself than she had since Riley had died.

“My King tells me you competed in the Charreada," Jelani commented, pulling Maggie back to the present.

“Some. Yes. When I was very young.” She answered, picking up the pace to ride side by side with him, as they left the narrow trail, and the rolling plains spread out before them. “Mostly, I helped my family with our cattle growing up, but that’s been well over a decade as well.”

“Well, we do not do most of that there. I will have to teach you how we heard our animals and handle our horses.” Jelani replied.

“I look forward to learning something new.” She answered.

“Good. Let’s see what you can do.” Jelani commented with a wink. “Do try to keep up, Cowgirl.” Without another word, he took off, and Maggie followed after, urging the horse into a gallop.

Following Jelani around the field, they weaved and turned, stopping and starting, slowing down and speeding up, testing her horsemanship. Jelani was a phenomenal horseman, and as it had been three years since she’d even been on a horse, her own horsemanship was rusty and paled in comparison. Fortunately, her horse was well trained and was able to correct and compensate for her inadequacies.

“Not bad for your first time on a horse in years.” Jelani laughed as they slowed to a walk.

The horses were breathing hard, but Maggie was breathing even harder. She nodded, laughing weakly.

“How do you feel?”

“Good. I feel good.” She managed.

“Good.” He smiled, “Now, let's get back. We should make it just in time for dinner.”

“Dinner?” Maggie echoed. How long had they been out here? She’d lost track of time. Shit the feed delivery.

“Indeed. You will come and have dinner with my family and me, won’t you?” Jelani commented.

“Of course. I would be honored.” Maggie heard herself respond, but she was still miles away.   

She’d missed Barnes, she’d missed her opportunity to talk to him, and to apologize for her previous behavior. She hadn’t even really told him "thank you" for dragging her out of the rain.

“There is a midwinter festival in a few weeks. Do you think with a bit of training, you would be able to help us move cattle and other livestock?” Jelani inquired as they started back toward the village.

“I would be happy to.”

“Good. You will make a good student, and an even better horsewoman once we get you trained up a little bit.” He cracked a wry smile.

Maggie might have risen to the bait, but she knew when she was being ribbed, particularly by older men who wanted to give her a hard time about something unimportant. She smiled and nodded, “With any sort of luck.”

“We should get back. We don’t want Tee to think that I’m misusing you.” Jelani commented as he started them back in the direction they’d come.

It had been a glorious afternoon that had certainly gotten Maggie out of her head and back in the saddle, literally and figuratively speaking. But she’d missed an opportunity to talk to Barnes. She wanted to try to set things right so that she could get him out of her head, and put this whole retched affair behind them. Now, it would be yet another week before she’d get that chance, and with everything going on, a week seemed like a lifetime away.

Yet, as they rode back and Maggie thought through what she and Jelani had done, and what Jelani had proposed, thoughts of Barnes melted away as she thought about her new task, her new goal. She was going to help Jelani and his team move cattle and other livestock during the midwinter festival. That was something to work toward. She had a purpose, and she had a goal, and she got to be back on a horse. There was certainly a lot that could happen between now and then, but for the first time in a while, she felt a little bit like her old self again. And that was worth missing a chance to settle this thing with Barnes. It had waited two and a half years, it could wait a little bit longer.

 

***

 

Bucky awoke with a start. An occurrence so familiar he almost didn’t notice that his whole body was shaking. He’d had that dream again. The one where everyone was dead, the one where everyone was dead, and it was his fault. The walls of his hut were closing in on him again, and so he rose from his bed and stepped into the night. It was a new moon, and the stars glittered across the sky, so bright and vibrant, you could see the arm of the Milky Way galaxy. He inhaled deeply.

The night air was cool, and a gentle breeze made the grass and the trees sway this way and that.

Safe. You’re safe.He repeated over and over to himself like a mantra. But it wasn’t working, not tonight, not right now.

Bucky exhaled, running his fingers through his hair, and started walking, his feet carrying him along one of the familiar goat paths.

It had been a quiet day, he’d looked after his goats, gone on his normal route with the feed, he’d made himself dinner, read some before he’d fallen asleep early. Although his mind and his PTSD had apparently had other plans.

Progress would be slow. Shuri had warned him. I can remove the hydra programming, but the memories and their trauma will still be there.

He hadn’t expected any less. He hadn’t wanted anything less. He’d wanted his memory back, and he wanted to remember, and now he remembered everything, and he would have to deal with the consequences. The consequences, of course, being flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia, anxiety, and a whole host of other things that he’d never imagined were possible to cohabitate in a single human being.

His mind was reeling, and his feet carried him through the Wakandan countryside. While he was aware of his surroundings, from the crunch of dirt, twigs, grass, and gravel underfoot to the sound of the wind whistling through the trees, he didn’t particularly care where he ended up, only that he needed to walk, and walk and walk until he outpaced the speed of his thoughts, or until exhaustion did the work for him.

He paused at the sound of someone humming, putting him immediately on edge. His eyes scanned the perimeter, his mind finally catching up to where his feet had led him. He was now nearly three miles over the hill and toward the horse village. Why he’d decided to head that way he didn’t know, but he glanced around, unable to identify precisely where the humming was coming from.

“Down here, Barnes.”

“Ramirez?” He lowered his eye line and found her sitting in the grass.

“Hi.” She said as they made eye contact.

“Hi.” He echoed. Glancing around, he realized he was actually no more than two hundred yards from her hut and the horse village. Of all the places in Wakanda, his feet had brought him to practically Ramirez’s front door. Why?

He’d expected to see her today during the feed delivery, only she’d been out on an errand with Jelani. At the very least, that’s what Sisay had told him. They hadn’t spoken since he’d hauled her down the mountain. He’d tried not to think about her. He’d mostly succeeded. It had been a busy few days since their misadventure. Yet, the questions he had were still with him, still rattling around in his overfilled brain. For him, while the whole question of Ramirez was a difficult and somewhat painful subject, it was easier for him to think through those things than it was to deal with any number of others.

“Sorry I missed you today," Ramirez commented.

“Sisay said you were out on an errand.”

“Jelani was getting me acquainted with Wakandan horsemanship.”

“Sounds like fun.” He offered uncertainly.

“It was, but I did want to talk to you.”

She wanted to talk to me? Bucky hesitated, uncertain of how to respond. “Why?” Seemed a little too direct at the moment, but with his head pounding and his mind still racing, he was drawing a blank.

As if sensing this, Ramirez took pity and continued, “I wanted to say thank you for what you did the other day and apologize for withholding information.”

Withholding information? She’d written out three journals, detailing everything she’d learned, and written a letter giving him a blank check to ask whatever the hell he wanted, and she was apologizing for withholding information? What did that mean? What could it mean? Bucky didn’t know, so he focused on the first part. “You wanted to say thank you?” He could hear the disbelief in his voice. “For what?”

“You got me out of a dangerous situation when I was less than gracious about the entire thing. You could’ve just let me wander around the Wakandan countryside lost until someone else found me, or for that matter could’ve left my ungracious ass on the mountainside when I slipped and sprained my ankle. So thank you for not doing any of those things.” She paused a moment. “All mitigating circumstances of our history aside, you didn’t owe me that, and I am grateful.”

“It seemed wrong to do otherwise, regardless of who it was.” Which he felt was mostly true. He would’ve done that for anyone, it was just doubly true because it was her.

Ramirez nodded, “I appreciate it, Barnes.” She held his gaze a moment before looking down and away, chewing on the corner of her mouth. She appeared to be debating with herself, although what she was debating, he didn’t know. After a moment, she reached a consensus and looked back up at him. “I have a message from your sister.”

So that’s what she’d meant about withholding information. Bucky could feel his heart race, pounding loudly in his throat as his stomach twisted into knots. “Okay.” He searched her expression as eagerly as she searched his.

“She wanted you to know that she never forgot you that your family never forgot you and that they love you very much.” She said slowly. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you sooner. I wasn’t sure if I could or if I should. What happened Friday, made me realize that it wasn’t my place to decide that. I certainly don’t owe you anything, but I did owe my friend the dignity of delivering her final message to her brother.”

It felt like a punch to the gut. Why had Ramirez kept that out of her letter? Why hadn’t she told him immediately?

Then a thought occurred. Ramirez hadn’t known if he deserved Becca’s message. If he was worthy of it. After all, she’d delved into the world of the Winter Soldier, and everything that he’d done after his sister had died. “Did my sister know?” Bucky managed, “Did she know what I’d become?”

Maggie exhaled slowly, breaking his gaze, she put her head down, her hands fidgeting with a chain around her neck. “You wanna sit down, Barnes?” She asked, glancing back up at him. “I’ll tell you what you wanna know, but there’s a lot of it.”

Bucky was being offered answers. He didn’t actually think he’d get answers, that he deserved answers after all of it. Now, after everything she’d been through because of him, Ramirez was once again offering them to him freely.

Ramirez said nothing a moment, waiting for him to make his decision before she nodded, took a deep breath, and began. “Your sister did ask about you. Becca saw you on the news, as the Winter Soldier, after the hellicarierres went down in D.C., and then after Steve showed up and said that he’d seen you, she was able to put two and two together. Steve wouldn’t give her details, wouldn’t talk about it. He wouldn’t talk about you with anyone, me, Sam, Becca, anyone. It was just too painful. It was one of the reasons that he introduced me to your sister, I think. At first, I asked a lot of questions about you, who you were as a person, before 1945, since I couldn’t get that information out of Steve.” She shook her head.

“You wanted to get a better picture of who you were looking for.” He interjected.

Ramirez nodded. “Yeah. And Becca was happy to oblige. We talked a lot about you in those first months. But then she wanted to know what had happened to you. She knew something terrible had happened to you, and she wanted to know how much of her brother was left to save.”

Bucky flinched. He hadn’t meant to, and nothing in Ramirez’s voice had been harsh or cold, but hearing that Becca had asked how much of her brother was left to save hurt. Hurt in a way that he hadn’t expected that it would. Somehow even Becca had known something terrible had happened to him. “So, what did you say?” He asked shortly.

“I told her the truth about what I had seen while you were on the ranch with me. That I could sense you were dangerous and capable of hurting me, but that I never felt afraid. I knew I should have been, perhaps that it might have spared me and ranch everything that I’ve gone through since then, but I knew that as much as you were a danger to me, you were more of a danger to yourself.” Ramirez chuckled weakly. “All of that seems so long ago. But I still remember how adamant you were about fixing the roof, and that you stuck your neck out for me with Roberts, and helped around the ranch when you didn’t have to, when in fact it was a detriment to you.” She shook her head. “I told your sister there was something compassionate about you, about the man that I had seen in my barn, that although you were scary and capable of tremendous violence, there was something worth trying to help still left in you.”

A rush of feeling washed over him, grief, shock, relief, and pain mixed into one. After everything she’d been through, Ramirez had told his sister there was something worth trying to help still left in him. “You told her that?” Bucky asked weakly.

“I did.”

“Did you believe it?”

“At the time, yes.” She answered.

“And now?”

“It depends on the day," Ramirez admitted with a shrug. “But I think that’s more of a me thing than a you thing if I’m being honest.”

There it was, the anger, the fury, the feelings and the person that Bucky had expected to find when he’d seen her that day she’d given him the journals. “You have more than enough reason to hate me, Ramirez.”

“You know, I really wanted to hate you.” She paused, “Are you sure you don’t wanna sit down? This seems really strange having this conversation with me sitting on the ground and you standing like twenty feet away. I promise I won’t bite.”

“I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“I wouldn’t consider it an intrusion. I did invite you to sit down. Twice, now.”

Bucky hesitated, “Why are you telling me any of this?”

“Because I want to.” She said. “And because I want to know.”

“Know what?”

“If any of this was worth it.”

If her sacrifice had been worth it. Bucky couldn’t help but notice what she hadn’t said. He took a couple halting steps toward her. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“I don’t think we’re going to get a better chance to sit and talk this through than in the middle of a field at two in the morning. If we’re going to live and work in close proximity, we should try to resolve this, whatever this is so we can move on with our lives.”

He nodded but said nothing as he crossed the distance between them, and sunk down on the far corner of her blanket. There was a pause, and the sounds of the night edged in around them, the wind, the rustle of the grass, the sound of animals and bugs taking up space in the night. “Why are you out here, Ramirez?”

“Couldn’t sleep, you?”

“Same.”

Ramirez surveyed him a moment, and he was almost sure she was going to call him out. Instead, she just nodded before glancing up at the multitude of stars overhead. “Thought I might try to stargaze until I realized that I didn’t have a proper star map and that it had been years since I’d been stargazing properly. But it was nice to get out of the hut and into the open air for a bit.” She stayed quiet a moment, her eyes scanning the night sky, with its endless depths before she looked back down and over at him. “So. What do you wanna know, Barnes?”

What didn't he want to know? There were a thousand questions swirling in his brain, mercifully he was able to latch onto one and put it into coherent words. “Why’d you do it? Decide to help Steve look for me?”

Ramirez paused, taking in the question, mulling over her answer, before slowly she began. “At first? It was because I wanted to go home. Steve and Sam and the Avengers had me declared dead so that Hydra wouldn’t keep trying to come after me. I figured the faster I found you, the faster I could go home.” She paused, wincing to herself. “And then I found out Becca was dying, and at that point I think I’d more or less realized I wasn’t going to get to go home any time soon, but that if I worked my ass off, uncovered enough clues, found enough bread crumbs that I could get her brother back, and you would get to say goodbye and have closure, in a way that I never got.” Ramirez shook her head.

“With your brother, Antonio.” It slipped out before he could stop it, and Ramirez turned to look at him, her expression creased in confusion as she looked him over.

“Yes," Ramirez said slowly, skepticism in her voice. “You’ve done research on me, haven’t you?”

“I did.” He replied, bracing for the anger, for the indignation and hurt to cross her face. Instead, relief, passed over her face, nearing an all-out smile. “What?”

“It really isn’t as strange as I might think, all things considered.” She said, echoing what he’d told her only four days before.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “I did a bit of research while I was on the run, of all of the Winter- all of my victims. People I’d killed for Hydra.”

“Only you didn’t kill me.”

“No. But I left you for dead.”

“Oh.” She frowned, “I mean. Yeah. I guess you did. But if it’s any small consolation, that’s not how I saw it.”

“And how did you see it?”

“You were frightened, and you warned me that I was in danger. I feel like had you just up and left without at least giving me warning that Hydra and that bag of dicks were headed toward me, then yeah, that would’ve been leaving me for dead.”

“So, that’s not why you wanted to hate me?”

“No. No. I wanted to hate you for the subsequent ways that your presence on my ranch ruined my life, and how it got me involved in the hunt for you, but when it came down to it, it was and is actually a me problem rather than a you problem.” She paused. “Sorry, not to circle back around to this, but you did research on me? What were you looking for? What did you find out?” There was a mix of horror and amusement in her voice.

“Just what the internet could provide.” He answered lamely.

Ramirez looked him over, opened her mouth to speak, hesitated before proceeding anyway. “Did you happen to write all this down?”

“Yeah. The journals were confiscated by the U.N.; otherwise, I would hand over what I wrote about you.” He said.

“That would explain why the international community took an interest.” She sighed, shaking her head. “I appreciate the gesture Barnes, but bad quinceanera photos and family home videos aren’t exactly medical history and a kill list.”

It took everything he had to keep from flinching at her words, but it wasn't like she was wrong. Still, Bucky knew he needed to say something. “Doesn’t make it any less personal.”

Ramirez took a moment to contemplate this before she answered. “True.” She agreed.

“I do appreciate the measures you took to make my information as secure as possible," Bucky commented slowly. “I take it, Romanoff trained you.”

 “She did.” Ramirez nodded. “Though not the same way that you trained her in the Red Room.”

“She tell you that?” Bucky could hear the incredulity in his voice. It didn't sound like 'Tasha to tell Ramirez about their history together, but then again Ramirez had broken more precedents than he could keep track of. Whatever her answer, it would be novel either way.

“I figured it out. She confirmed.”

“So you know you spent two years hanging out with two of my former...” He sought for the right word and came up blank.

“Details didn’t come up. I suspected mostly with Natasha until she confirmed it for me. Steve was evasive as best, but I figured that was because he was hurting, and finding you were going to be the only way he could heal from that hurt. They didn’t volunteer information, and so I didn’t dig. It didn’t seem important to our mission of bringing you home. Which is why it doesn’t appear in the journals, amongst other things.” Ramirez paused. “But I think their perspective was important to how I understood you or understood who you might be.” She said slowly. “The James Barnes that each of them knew was different, very different, but they all said the same thing. They all said that you were a good man.” Ramirez shook her head. “It’s probably why I kept at it as long as I did, it felt like it would be worth it in the end.”

“Was it?”

Ramirez chuckled, shaking her head she flexed her left hand before rubbing it gingerly with her right, “I don’t know. I think I’m too close to the situation to be able to say for sure, at least right now.” She glanced up at him, “Sorry that I don’t have a better answer. Ask me in six months to two years. I’ll have a better answer then.”

Bucky nodded, and there was a long pause as he tried to find the right words to express everything that was going through his head. He’d ruined this woman’s life, and now, even after everything that had happened to her, and after everything she’d learned about him, about what he’d done, still had it within herself to not hate him. “You should hate me.”

“Probably, and I did want to, I tried, Barnes, trust me.” She said after a moment. “It just ultimately wasn’t a productive use of my time. Why would that make it easier?”

“Easier?”

“I dunno. Sometimes it’s an easier emotion to quantify.” She shrugged.

Perhaps it would make it easier, knowing there was someone out there who hated him more than he hated himself. There certainly were plenty of contenders, but none quite as convenient as Magdalene Ramirez. However, as she had said, hatred was an easier emotion to quantify than anything they’d talked about this evening. Hatred would be easier to understand. Hatred would be easier to overcome. Whatever she felt, it was more complicated than that.

Ask me in six months to two years.

He would laugh if it weren’t true. They were stuck with one another for the duration, and what that meant remained to be seen. However, now it felt they were on slightly surer footing than they’d been only three weeks ago when she’d first arrived. “So, what do you want?” Bucky asked.

“Want?” She echoed.

“Out of our future interactions.” He said slowly. “If you never want to speak to me again, I understand.”

“Oh.” Ramirez paused, frowning, she thought this over before proceeding. “I’d like to be able to talk to you about Becca if that’s something you’d be interested in.” She said. “I know that if there is anything I don’t regret about the last two and a half years, it’s getting to know your sister for the short time that I did. I’d like to be able to share that, share her with you.”

Bucky could feel his chest ache at the mention of Becca, and the friendship that she and Ramirez hard formed. He was jealous, of that time, of that opportunity, of that chance. Yet it sounded like Becca was probably the only thing standing between him and Ramirez's outright hatred. The fact that Ramirez wanted to talk about his sister, talk about his sister with him, that was an opportunity worth its weight in vibranium, or gold, take your pick. “I’d like that.” Bucky nodded.

“Me too.” Ramirez started a smile that transformed itself into a massive yawn. “Damn.” She shook her head, glancing at her Kimoyo bracelet. “I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait for another time.”

“Yeah, I should get back.” Bucky agreed, rising to his feet, he watched as Ramirez collected the blanket and rose to hers.

“It’s going be a long day tomorrow I need to try to get some rest,” She paused, looking him over uncertainly. “If you ever can’t sleep Barnes, or you wanna talk about Becca, I haven’t been sleeping well, I don’t mind the company. Even yours.”

“Thanks?”

“No problem.” She laughed. Shaking the blanket out, Ramirez folded it carefully and then turned to him. “Well, goodnight! Get back to your place safe.”

“Thanks. Night.” He replied, turning he started walking away, only vaguely aware that he was being watched by Ramirez as he walked over the hill and out of her line of sight.

His mind was still spinning, the blood and screaming and horror were never far away. Yet, for a brief moment, as he paused, looking out over the lake just outside of his hut, he felt relief and felt peace. He’d gotten answers to some of his questions, and he would continue to get answers as he and Ramirez talked about Becca. What tomorrow would bring, he didn’t know but riding the tailwind of his conversation with Ramirez, he knew he’d be able to find a little bit a rest with the little bit of certainty that she had provided him. Becca had remembered him, knew what he was, and had still loved him.

Chapter Text

Bucky liked peopled watching. He’d always been particularly observant, it had saved his skin more than once, before and after Hydra as a means of survival. However, in Wakanda, he found himself as an observer in a way he’d never experienced before. Rather than being one of the faces in the crowd, he found that people smiled and greeted him, their eyes always watchful and curious. They didn’t bother him, but he knew he was being watched. Still, people watched him and he watched them back. It was The Midwinter Festival, which Bucky had been told, was the event of the year. The kids had practically dragged him to the festival grounds, even though he didn’t have livestock or produce to sell. It was nice, however, to listen to the sounds of Wakandans living their lives and mostly taking no mind of the stranger amongst them.

He scanned the crowds, looking for one person in particular. He knew he shouldn’t be looking for her, she was probably busy out with the horses, doing whatever it was that she was doing with Jelani, but still, he rather hoped that he would be able to see her at some point when they both weren’t supposed to be working.

It had been three weeks since he’d walked to the Horse village in the middle of the night, and they’d had their conversation. Every Tuesday since then, they’d spent their lunch hour talking about Becca. That first Tuesday had been awkward, but after that, he’d started looking forward to their lunchtime discussions. It was a welcome break from being trapped inside his own head, and they both had a lot to say and ask about his sister.

For his part, he was curious about the type of woman Becca had become, and the family she’d left behind. Ramirez wanted to know what she was like growing up. To keep things fair, they both got thirty minutes to ask and have their questions answered. Which, depending on how in-depth their questions were meant they only got to or three questions per lunch hour.

Yes, it was an imperfect system, but for them, it seemed to work. Things were still tense, but since Ramirez had told him that she wanted to talk about Becca, some of the tension had subsided substantially. Part of this was because they avoided any topic or thread of conversation that linked back to their and their history. Whether by unspoken rule or happy coincidence, they hadn’t ventured into awkward territory.

Still, Bucky was curious about Ramirez and was eager to see if she would want to talk with him outside of their allotted lunchtime.

“Heyi White wolf.” Bucky started, turning to see his neighbor Omondi approaching.

“Elder Omondi.” He nodded in response.

A short, rail-thin Wakandan man with long white dreads, Omondi was the eldest chief of the village where he was staying and had volunteered to take him in as his sponsor when Shuri had brought him out into the countryside shortly after she’d thawed him out. So he was Bucky’s neighbor, sponsor, and functionally his boss, which made all of their interactions strange in a way that Bucky couldn’t quite define.

“That’s just Omondi to you.” The man corrected as he approached. “You really should start wearing your Kimoyo bracelet while you’re out.” He scolded, taking his walking stick up in both hands.

“Why’s that?”

“The royal family have been trying to get a hold of you.”

“What? Why?” His mind began to spin. What had happened? Was it Steve? Had something terrible happened? Was he hurt? Killed?

“They wanted you to eat lunch with them in honor of the festival. You were due there twenty minutes ago.”

“Oh.” He breathed, as his heart stopped pounding quite as quickly. “Thank you for letting me know.”

“Do you know the way?”

“I don’t.”

“Then, I will show you.” Before Bucky could manage a “thank you," Omondi set off toward the center of the festival, weaving this way and that way through the throngs of people that had come to the celebration. Bucky followed after, aware of how the crowds seemed to part before them.

“So, you came!” Omondi commented cordially as they walked.

“The kids wouldn’t have forgiven me if I hadn’t. He replied. It wasn’t a total lie, only a lie through omission.

“Well, good. They should bully you more often. The Festival is one of the great Wakandan traditions, no one should miss out on seeing it.” he paused as they took a sharp turn, before continuing his questions. “How have you liked Wakanda?”

“It’s been nice. Quiet. It’s very peaceful here.” Bucky answered.

“I am glad to hear white boy. You have been a very good neighbor.” Omondi commented.

“You and your village have been very good to me.” Bucky replied, “I don’t know how I can ever repay your kindness.”

“You should not spend so much time alone. It is not healthy. You carry a heavyweight from the life you have led. It is not a crime to allow others to help you with its weight.” Omondi said. “A friend would be good for you, and who knows, maybe in return, you’ll be able to share their load with them too.”

Bucky opened his mouth to respond but thought better of it. The man wasn’t wrong, he did spend a lot of time by himself, and for good reason. He was coming down off of 70 years of brainwashing and torture, adding people into the mix was more than he was prepared for. Plus, finding peers closer to his own age would require some serious thinking. Was he almost a hundred, or was he closer to his mid-thirties? By who’s count was he keeping score? It was a difficult question.

“What about that other American, the one at Jelani’s?” Omondi supplied when Bucky didn’t say anything. “Jelani tells me you’ve been spending your lunch hour with her on Tuesdays.”

Of course he did. Bucky couldn’t help but wonder if Jelani had given Ramirez the same talk that he was now getting from Omondi.

“You might want to give it a try," Omondi concluded as a shady tent overlooking the Midwinter Festival’s festivities came into view. “They’re expecting you. I’ll see you after.” Omondi motioned with his head.

Bucky paused, looking back at Omondi’s retreating form, then up to the tent where he could hear laughter and voices. He would rather be out in the grassland watching over his goats than stuck at a formal luncheon, but he owed the King and his family this at the very least. He wished he’d known in advance to be able to mentally prepared himself for everything that was getting ready to take place, as the thought of all of the people, noise, and social protocol made his head begin to spin.

“So they got you too, huh, Barnes?”

He turned to see Ramirez walking up this hill toward him. Her usual pants and button-down replaced by a wrap skirt in the dark oranges and blacks and tans of the plains tribe and black halter, large bronze and copper earrings hung from her ears, and her long hair was twisted and braided, and wrapped with a cloth of a similar pattern as her skirt.

Bucky looked down at what he was wearing. The red and blue scarf and matching shirt and pants that Shuri had first given him when he’d arrived. It was clean and lacked holes or stains, but by comparison to her, he looked unkempt and underdressed.

“I meant the lunch.” She clarified as she came up beside him.

“Yeah. I received the invitation a little late, so I’m not quite as dressed.” He explained.

“This was part Teela, part Jelani, and I’m sure mostly Princess Shuri," Ramirez commented, glancing up at the tent. A look of dread crossed her expression. “If we started running now, how far do you think we’d get before they caught us?” She asked dryly.

Bucky looked down, they were both wearing leather sandals, although Ramirez’s were the kind that wrapped around her calves with thick straps. “Well, with those shoes, you wouldn’t get very far. I could carry you over my shoulder, but that would slow me down considerably.” He reasoned.

Ramirez snorted, shaking her head. “Every man for themselves, huh?” She asked, looking up at him, she arched a graceful eyebrow before returning her attention to the tent. “They’re our hosts. It would be rude.” She said, more to herself than to him.

Then there was a transformation. In an instant, she looked somehow more at ease, more relaxed, an easy smile on her face, “Come on Barnes, we’re already late, we shouldn’t keep our hosts waiting.” She said before charging up the hill without another word.

A mask. Bucky realized. It was what he’d seen on the ranch too. A performance. Was that what she was doing with him every Tuesday? He couldn’t help but wonder with creeping dread as he walked up the hill after her. He replayed their interactions as if upon closer inspection, he’d find something he’d missed before.

Reaching the entrance of the tent, he paused, watching the scene unfold before him. The Princess Shuri had taken Ramirez over to the Queen-mother, who was sitting at the head of the table in her place of honor and was now engaged in a polite exchange. Ramirez executed a small bobbing curtesy, introducing herself in Wakandan, and thanking the queen mother for her gracious invitation. Her pronunciation was impeccable. She’s been practicing, Bucky couldn’t help but notice. He’d heard her a couple of Tuesday’s before their scheduled lunchtime, working on Wakandan phrases and expressions with Sisay and Jelani.

The Queen-mother smiled graciously. For her part, Ramirez looked the perfect picture of calm, composed, and poised, all except the clasped hands, which she was squeezing so tightly it looked painful.

Bucky paused as a silent presence settled beside him. “General.” He nodded.

“White Wolf," Okoye said in sharp English.

“Only my best behavior.” Bucky murmured.

“I would expect nothing less.” She answered coolly.

Bucky nodded. He didn’t mind her demeanor. He understood, and he respected her role and position. He hadn’t exactly started off on the best foot with T’Challa or his head of security. Being menacing wasn’t just for show, and Bucky knew on instinct alone that he did not want to ever find himself on the pointy end of Okoye’s spear. Ever.

“White Wolf. Join us!” The Queen Mother called in plain English, beckoning him over to the table where she, the Princess Shuri, and Ramirez were already sitting.

“Your highness, thank you for the invitation.” He nodded as he approached the table, pausing only as Okoye indicated which seat he would be occupying.

He was with his back to the entrance, which made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge. But if anyone in Wakanda wanted to kill him, he’d imagine it would be the aforementioned General, who would be honorable enough to kill him face to face, rather than with a knife to the back.

Sinking down in the seat next to Ramirez, he looked across the table where Princess Shuri and The Queen mother already sat, two empty seats between them for The King and another guest.

“How are you finding Wakanda so far, Magdalene?” The Queen Mother asked her eyes flitting between the two foreigners at her table.

“Very Well. I am profoundly grateful for the tremendous generosity and kindness I’ve been shown by everyone I’ve met since I’ve arrived in your beautiful country,” Ramirez answered warmly, everything about her looked at ease. Or rather almost, Bucky couldn’t help but notice how her hands were still clenched in her lap.

The Queen Mother nodded graciously, before looking up and behind them, a regal smile gracing her expression. “Ahh, my son.”

Everyone turned to see The King with the woman he’d called on at the meeting when they’d found Ramirez, enter the tent, followed by his entourage of Doras.

“Barnes. Magdalen.” He nodded regally as he unhooked his arm from the woman’s and turned to address them “

Bucky rose to his feet, as Ramirez did the same, and turned to the young monarch. “I apologize for the last-minute invitation, but we are glad you could both make it," T’Challa said, first shaking Bucky’s hand before he turned to Ramirez.

“Thank you for inviting us, your highness.” Ramirez managed in Wakandan as they shook hands.

“I see you have been practicing.” The king said, gracing her with a smile. “Jelani tells me you have been putting my birthday gift to good use.”

Ramirez nodded as they released hands. She returned the king’s smile with a hesitant one of her own, before continuing in English. “Yes, I haven’t had the opportunity to say thank you for the generous gift. I have been working very hard to make the absolute most out of them.”

Bucky watched the exchange with curiosity, his gaze darting back and forth between them. Birthday gift? He pondered a moment. Oh Shit. It had been her birthday. He knew her birthday, it was November 11th, Armistice Day, he’d written it down in his journal. Bucky backtracked, trying to remember when the 11th had been. The day I carried her down the mountain. It had been her birthday?

“Barnes, Magdalene, I believe you’ve already met her, but this is Nakia of the River tribe, and head of Wakandan international intelligence.”

“His girlfriend.” The princess supplied not as under her breath as her brother would’ve liked.

Nakia, however, took it in stride. “A pleasure to meet you both, formally, this time," Nakia said, shaking hands with both him and Ramirez before following the King around the table.

The King sunk down, sitting down in the seat beside his mother, and Nakia sat between him and the princess. When the royal family had settled, he looked up and motioned for them to sit as well.

Greeting his mother and sister, The King paused as the food was brought out and presented to the table. “Please, eat, drink and talk freely,” He urged them. “This is a day of celebration, and you are my guests.”

Ramirez thanked him again, before diving right into the meal, Bucky followed a little more cautiously, watching the physical cues of everyone around him, particularly Ramirez, who sat on his right side, still strained and tense like a rubber band about to snap.

Was it him? Was it the situation? Bucky didn’t know, so he stayed quiet, watching and listening to what was going on around him. Aside from not knowing what to say, he really didn’t have all that much to say that would pass as pleasant lunch conversation. So he just listened. The royal family chatted amicably, occasionally The king and princess quibbled, while Nakia and Ramirez were talking about ranching in west Texas, crop yields, and seasonal weather patterns and climate in Spanish.

From what Bucky could catch, Ramirez was doing her best to answer them but often finished with “I think...I was a kid, and it’s been a while...I can look it up if you’d like.”

To which Nakia would shake her head and say, “No, no, thank you, Ms. Ramirez.” And then would proceed to the next question. Bucky was amazed at how much Spanish he knew, considering all of the other languages and information Hydra had shoved in his brain.

All of this came to an abrupt halt when a message buzzed at her wrist. She stopped mid-sentence and looked down, reading the message. “Everything all right?” The Queen-mother questioned as all eyes turned to focus on Ramirez.

Ramirez nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid I must excuse myself. I have to return to the stock pens. There is a fence breach. All hands on deck.” She glanced up and around at the assembled company. “Thank you, Queen-mother, for your hospitality. Thank you, your highness, for inviting me to dine at your table.”

“Of course. We shall not detain you.” The King replied graciously.

Ramirez rose, rushing her thanks and goodbyes to everyone. Pausing, she glanced down, nodded to him, and left the tent as the assembled company chorused their farewells to her retreating form.

Once she disappeared into the bustling crowds of the festival, all eyes turned to him.

“How have you been enjoying the Midwinter Festival, Mr. Barnes?” The King inquired, taking a sip of his drink.

Why did he feel like this was somehow a trap? They were going to find a way to bring this back around to Ramirez, ask him how they were getting along, how she was adjusting. So how was he supposed to respond to that? They were laying a trap for him, and he wasn’t sure how to avoid springing it. “I honestly hadn’t had a chance to look around before lunch. I look forward to getting the chance to see all that Midwinter Festival has to offer.” He said.

“Were you surprised to see Ms. Ramirez here?” The Princess piped up.

There it is. “No. She told me she was going to be at the festival.”

“Jelani tells me you’ve been having lunch every Tuesday together.” The King continued. “How is she adjusting life in Wakanda?”

Bucky paused. What was there to say? He’d seen her once a week for three weeks, for an hour. Before that? They hadn’t exactly been on speaking terms. “I don’t think I could speak to that. I’m still adjusting, and I’ve been here quite a bit longer.”

The King nodded, and the lunch passed without further comment on the subject of Ramirez. Instead, Princess Shuri asked him about his goats, and how Omondi and the others were doing in the village. He asked her about her projects, and she was able to share some of the less classified things.

Lunch ended, and the royal family and Nakia bid him farewell, and he walked back through the festival grounds, his mind trying to digest what he’d just seen.

The Wakandans were trying to gauge how he and Ramirez were getting along. Between Omondi, T’Challa, and now he assumed Shuri, Jelani, and the rest of them, he and Ramirez were being watched like hawks. It made sense, the only two foreigners in the entire country, they want to make sure they aren’t getting into trouble. Was Ramirez receiving the same sort of treatment? What did she think of all of this?

For her part, Ramirez was excellent at playing whatever role needed to be played, particularly at lunch. But, he couldn’t help but notice, she’d been perfectly cordial and candid with him right before they’d joined the royal family. Did she want to talk to him? Did she look forward to talking to him the way that he was with her? Or was this simply a favor to his sister and to Steve?

Bucky didn’t know, and he knew the only way to find out would be to ask, which at the moment felt like an insurmountable task.

“I trust lunch with the King went well," Omondi commented as Bucky arrived back at the goat paddocks.

As part of the festival there was a nationwide livestock sale, which accounted for the presence of the entire herding and ranching community. Omondi, who had several hundred goats split into various herds under the direction of his sons and sons in law, was a key figure not just in the village but in the country. As such, there were a bunch of Wakandan men gathered around Omondi, who all gave Bucky a critical look at his approach.

“I did.” He replied, surveying the group of men uncertainly.

Sensing Bucky’s discomfort, Omondi glanced around at the group, firing off several rapid bursts of Wakandan that Bucky didn’t quite catch all of. Although there were two particular phrases that he was able to catch. “Lunch with our king," and “Cowgirl was there.”

What else the man said, Bucky didn’t exactly know, but there was a round of laughs, and their demeanor changed.

Bucky shifted uncertainly as the men returned to their conversation with Omondi. He didn’t need to be here for this. He had told the king that he was going to explore and see what the festival had to offer.

I just want to go home. What? Back to his hut? To read? He was still trying to catch up after all. No, he was most likely going to go back to the hut, and journal, and he was going to sit and obsess over all of the stuff he was remembering, the violent, horrible things that the Winter Soldier had done.

A friend would be good for you.

Bucky would’ve laughed if it wasn’t true. Unfortunately for both of them, the only likely candidate at the moment was Ramirez, and he still got the feeling that she only tolerated being around him. He wouldn’t dare burden her with such a task.

Slipping away from the goat pens, he wove his way through the festival’s stalls and vendors. All of them selling anything from fresh produce to fine jewelry. There was, of course, what could be considered fair food: frozen and fried desserts, meats on sticks, meats in between pieces of bread, all sorts of roasted and fried vegetables. There was even a shaved ice stand, although not with the technicolor array of flavors that he remembered buying from the stands in Coney Island and Central Park.

It was crowded and loud, and he couldn’t help but notice the stares and passing whispers. He tried to ignore them. After all, what could he exactly do to stop them? They would whisper regardless of what he did, just on the basis that he wasn’t Wakandan, and he was missing an arm, never mind that he was the guy who’d briefly been blamed for the death of their previous king.

Now that he was on the mend, he could go back out into the world and help Steve, Wilson, and Maximoff. Perhaps he could help them find Romanoff. Not that ‘Tasha would ever let him find her if she didn’t want him to.

No. He shook his head. He could hardly control his flashbacks, and his nightmares were violent enough without going back into the field. It wouldn’t be a good thing for him. It wouldn't be a good thing for anyone.

A friend would be good for you. Someone to share your burden.

Bucky was pulled from his thoughts by the roar of massive bodies and the thunder of hooves.

He was near the cattle yards.

Glancing around, he realized that just a few hundred yards beyond the outskirts of the festival grounds, there was a massive field where the cattle were being moved into different pens.

The thunder of hooves was pierced by quick shouts in bursts of Wakandan. A call and response, almost like a song communicating something utterly foreign to Bucky, but that the riders seemed to understand and follow. His eyes scanned the field until he found Ramirez among them. Her hair was still wrapped up in the traditional Wakandans scarf, and she still wore the halter top but had removed the wrap skirt, using it as a scarf slung across her body, and now wore pants. Her massive beaten bronze and copper earrings were gone, but the reigns saddle, and saddle blanket of her horse, and all of the Wakandan riders, were highly ornamented with and bangles and bells which made an audible jangling that could be heard even over the massive thunder of hooves.

Her face, Bucky couldn’t help but notice was bent in focus and concentration as she and the horse moved together as one. It was fluid and natural, and the horse it seemed moved practically by telepathy as she didn’t seem to be directing the horse at all with the reigns. She wasn’t alone, of course, there was Sisay, Jelani, and a few others all on horseback moving cows into various pens while others on the ground moved gates and orchestrated the next movement of animals and workers.

The ground was dry, and the movements of the massive animals raised dust, which swirled around them in the light afternoon breeze. Bucky found his gaze drawn to Ramirez as she worked, the way she maneuvered the horse in perfect harmony with the others. He’d never seen her on a horse, strange, considering he’d spent two weeks on her ranch. Well...not all that strange, considering he hadn’t exactly been all there for most of it. But seeing her on horseback now, she looked more at ease than he’d ever seen her before. There was something peaceful about her expression. Her face was bent in concentration and absolute focus, her eyes continually moving and accessing the situation second by second. Her mouth also moved, as she worked, either answering the call or chewing on the corner of her mouth or licking her lips. It was an open and honest expression.

He was staring, Bucky knew he was starring, but he couldn’t look away as she worked, unaware of his presence, in what could best be described as her natural habitat.

There were only a few cows left, which they quickly and expertly sorted into the appropriate pens. Then over the plains came a song. It was loud and joyous, and Bucky managed about every third word or so. It was about finishing a hard day’s work and going home to the girl you love. Ramirez sang along, in a full chested voice, a broad grin on her face.

Nothing else to see, you should go before she realizes you’ve been watching. Bucky thought as he turned to go. “Heyi, White Wolf!” A series of voices chorused over the field and reached him. He froze, momentarily contemplating pretending that he hadn’t heard them, and walking away before they could reach him, but knew that he’d been made, and he’d have to turn and face the consequences.

Turning back around, he found that Jelani had broken off from the group and was trotting toward where he was standing. “You should come to the stables. A few of my riders would like to meet you!” He called. “Unless Omondi needs you elsewhere.”

“I can go to the stables," Bucky answered. Glancing past Jelani to Ramirez, who had stopped a distance away and was watching the exchange.

“Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite. See you in a few," Jelani winked before, clicking his tongue, directing his horse back toward the other riders.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Bucky followed after, and soon found himself surrounded by horses, and their riders. Jelani was there, of course, and introduced them in turn. They all shook his hand politely and asked him how he liked the festival, each of them expressing surprise when Bucky was able to respond in passable Wakandan.

After a few minutes, the crowd dispersed, and Bucky and Jelani were left standing alone. It was an open-air set of stalls not really a barn, more like a set of posts that the riders were tying their horses to. He could see Ramirez moving around her horse, fastening a feedbag and mask to the horse’s harness before she started removing the tack, setting it on a nearby log where the others were placing their saddles.

“You ever been on a horse, White Wolf?” Jelani inquired amicably.

“No.” Bucky shook his head, redirecting his attention to Jelani.

“Really? The King tells me that you were on Cowgirl’s ranch for two weeks. She didn’t get you on a horse?”

“I prefer having both feet on the ground," Bucky said quickly. The idea of getting on the back of a horse was more than enough to make his blood pressure skyrocket, never mind that Ramirez’s head had shot up and she was now watching them from where she was standing.

“Omondi says that you have a keen eye. You could be useful.”

Bucky didn’t know how to respond, and he grasped at straws, trying to figure out what to say next. His people and conversational capacity long spent after his lunch with the Royal Family, and now his brain was frantically trying to come up with something, but only drawing a blank.

Then, Ramirez’s voice broke the silence. “Hey, Barnes! Can you come over here a minute?” She called.

Glancing at Jelani, Jelani gave him the universal “Go on,” motion with his head, and Bucky nodded, excusing himself and quickly crossing the yard to where Ramirez was working on her horse.

Rounding the back of the horse, he found Ramirez crouched. She looked up at his approach, a grimace creasing her features. “What’s wrong?” He asked, stopping in his tracks.

“Sounded like you could use an out," Ramirez replied with a thin smile that quickly returned to a grimace. “Could you...can you..” she paused, licking her lips, motioned vaguely to the hoof pick lying on the ground with her right hand, her left clutched against her. “I’ll never hear the end of it if I asked them for help.” She said.

Bucky nodded, understanding her meaning, and wordlessly retrieved the pick.

“If you don’t mind too much, could you help me pick out the hooves? I’ll lift up the hoof if you pick it out, I can walk you through it if you’d like.”

“I remember,” he replied, adjusting the pick in his hand.

“So you remember that, huh?” She cracked a small smile as she lifted the first hoof, straddling the horse’s leg, held it steady.

“I had a good teacher," Bucky said as he started to remove the compacted dirt and mud from the pad of the hoof. It was slow going with only one hand, but Ramirez was keeping the hoof steady, so it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been otherwise.

“How’d the rest of lunch go?” She commented casually as he worked.

“Fine.” Bucky paused, glancing up at her, they met each other’s gaze. “The King wanted to know how you’re adjusting to life in Wakanda.”

Much to her credit, Ramirez’s facial features remained perfectly still, even as her eyes surveyed his expression. “Oh? And what did you say?”

“Said I wasn’t qualified to speak to that.” He answered.

Ramirez snorted, but nodded, offering no other commentary.

“Was that okay?” Bucky asked uncertainly.

“That looks good.” She said, ignoring his question. “Help me with the other three?”

“Sure.” He nodded.

They moved to the next one, and he worked in silence a moment before Ramirez spoke again. “Yeah. That was fine.” She paused, “Level with me, Barnes. Is there some kind of betting pool that I’m unaware of?” She asked, the exasperation thick in her voice.

“No. Why?”

“It feels like everyone has taken a tremendous interest in our interactions recently. I figured money had to be involved,” Ramirez shook her head.

So it wasn’t just him. That was a relief. “Yeah, I noticed that too.” He paused, “Does it bother you? I’m sure if we said something, it would stop.”

"I doubt it," Ramirez shrugged, “I was just wondering what the stakes were and if I should place a wager.”

“What?” He stammered.

She paused, looking up at him, cracked a smile, giggling quietly. “It was a joke, Barnes.”

“Oh. Right.”

“So, other than that, nothing extraordinary happened after I left? You have a chance to explore the festival?” She inquired as they completed the second hoof and moved around to the third.

“Nothing extraordinary to report. I did get a chance to walk around for a bit.”

“Anything exciting?”

“Not particularly,” He shrugged casually.

“Must be pretty boring if you were driven to watching us work,” She commented with a light laugh. It wasn’t a harsh or mean laugh, It was pleasant and kind. Probably kinder than he deserved.

“I’d never seen a cattle round-up or drive or whatever,” He explained, not about to mention that the crowds and noise had been getting to him.

Ramirez paused, again looking up at him, “No. I guess you hadn’t.” She said thoughtfully, surveying him a moment before focusing back down on what they were doing.

“So what about you? Have you had a chance to explore?” He asked, his attention focused down on the hoof, picking and scraping at the mud, grass, and twigs that had compacted.

“Not too much. Just when I was walking to lunch.”

They paused, both standing up and watching as a group of the riders walked by, “Heyi White Wolf, see you later, ewe?” They called, waving as they passed.

Bucky nodded, watching Ramirez’s expression out of the corner of his eyes as they walked away. It wasn’t angry or frustrated. If anything, it was amused. “What?” He asked as they walked around to the last hoof.

“They really like you, don’t they?” She said, picking up the horse's leg.

“Who?”

“The kids. Omondi. Jelani, my co-workers, the Wakandans in general.”

“Oh. That.” He said sourly. “I think it’s more that I’m a curiosity. The strange one-armed white guy.”

“You are a strange white guy with one arm.” She said a matter of factly, releasing the last hoof and giving the horse’s haunch a pat. Without missing a beat, she extended her hand to him, “Pick, please.”

Placing the pick in her open palm, Bucky watched as she turned, and crouching down by her saddlebags, started to rummage through them. His mind reeled as he tried to pick apart their current conversation to figure out what was going on. She’d recognized he was having a hard time and called him over to help her. They were having a conversation, a quite normal, he’d even argue a pleasant conversation. She hadn’t been awkward about him calling himself ‘that strange one-armed white guy.’ Even Steve got a little uncomfortable when Bucky made casual reference to the arm, or now the lack thereof. She’d even asked him for his help, in a way that was both beneficial to her, and accessible for him.

“Hey Barnes, you wanna help me brush?”

“Sure.” He nodded as Ramirez rose to her feet.

“Awesome, here catch.” She tossed a brush to him.

Bucky caught it. Inspecting it curiously, he chuckled under his breath. Even here in the far reaches of the world, the tools were damn near identical. Ramirez moved around to the other side of the horse, where she was across him and started to brush the horse down with patient methodical circles, her eyes bright and focused were still creased with pain and exhaustion.

“Long day?”

“Yeah,” She sighed, nodding. “Been up and out since about three this morning.”

“Why so early?”

Ramirez snorted, “You are a dyed in the wool city kid.” She shook her head, “Ummm,” She began, “Well, had to get the horses out and ready to go for the day. Then coordinating with the other tribes to drive their cattle and then getting them to the yard. Then, of course, the fence breach. It’s been a hell of a day.” She sighed.

“Sounds like it.” He agreed.

They continued in silence, working quietly on their respective sides a moment before Ramirez spoke again. “Okay. I gotta ask. Is there a reason why they call you White Wolf? Other than your pallid completion, I mean?” She watched him a moment, her eyes just visible over the horse’s back, before adding. “And before you eye-roll into another dimension, I do ask in earnest. They keep referring to you as the White Wolf, I’m just wondering if I should refer to you as the Lobo Blanco as well.”

“I wasn’t going to eye-roll into another dimension Ramirez, and no, you don’t have to call me that.” He paused, trying to find the most direct path through what was a complicated story. “It’s an honorific. It means I’ve been accepted into Wakanda as an outsider, I’ve been effectively adopted into Wakanda.”

“Ah. So a title. Color me a little disappointed.” She said, shaking her head.

“I can’t stop you from calling me, Lobo Blanco.”

She looked up at him. “You have incredible pronunciation for a gringo. I’m impressed.”

“But you knew that I mean—” He cut himself off, bracing himself for a negative reaction.

Instead, Ramirez just shrugged, “I mean yeah. I know that you speak 30 languages, but I didn’t know if you spoke it like a gringo or like a native speaker. I would consider myself to be a native speaker, and even I had a bit of trouble blending in, in Juarez.” She replied. “How’s your idiomatic Spanish? They teach you all of the swear words?”

Bucky snorted. That would’ve been something. “No.” He shook his head. “Not officially. I did pick up some idiomatic and profane language via exposure but nothing sanctioned per-say.” He paused as he processed the words coming out of his mouth.

They were talking about Hydra, they were talking about the Winter Soldier, and about the training, they’d given him. Shouldn’t he be feeling something? Shouldn’t she be more on edge? She knew what he’d done for them, wouldn’t she be worried about, triggering him or something? Instead, she looked perfectly at ease and content as she continued working the brush in little circles. If she was afraid of him or afraid of eliciting a reaction out of him, she didn’t show it.

“Well, I’ll have to teach you some of the more colorful Spanish colloquialisms some time.” She continued, unaware of his internal dialogue. “Provided you can help me with swear words in a language of your choosing. Even English, I like outdated slang and swear words.”

“Oh, the old-timey curse words.” He hazarded a little a vague sarcasm with a dash of mock innocence. “I don’t think I know any of those.”

“Oh, bullshit, Barnes,” She rolled her eyes. “You forget I’ve spent a lot of my life around members of the armed forces, and I’ll have you know Army has the second-worst language, behind Navy.”

“Behind Navy? I’m fucking appalled.”

Ramirez laughed. “Well, they say swear like a sailor for a reason. Swear like an Army Sergeant doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.”

“I’d have to agree with you.” Bucky nodded.

“Heyi, Cowgirl.”

They both turned to see Jelani standing a few feet away. “Ewe, Jelani?” She turned to the man, her body language immediately becoming more rigid than it had been only a second before.

“When you are done with that, take some time. We won’t need you until this evening.” Jelani paused, surveying her a moment. “Get a wrap on your wrist and hand. You’re not fooling anyone.”

“Ewe.” She nodded, and Jelani departed without another word. She turned back to the horse with a heavy sigh and resumed her careful brush strokes. “It’s been a while since I’ve worked like that. My hand is bothering me.” She explained the anger, frustration, and venom in her words palpable. Ramirez glanced up at him, meeting his gaze, “Marble rolling pin and a couple of Hydra Douchebags will do that to you.” She shook her head, “but I guess I don’t have anything to complain about.” Her gaze lingered a moment on his left shoulder, before looking down.

What was he supposed to say? What did she expect him to say? Bucky said nothing, finishing his work in silence. When she’d finished, he rounded the horse and extended the brush to her. “Anything else?” He inquired as she took the brush from him and returned them to the saddle-bag.

“Nope, that’ll be all Lobo Blanco," Ramirez replied with a playful grin, her tone resuming its casual, almost relaxed cadence, though now Bucky was almost entirely sure that it was a mask that she’d put on to put him at ease.

“So, what are you going to do now?”

“Other than ice down my wrist and hand, not much, probably take a nap.” She shrugged,

“You’re not going to explore the festival grounds?” He asked. He couldn’t help but hear the sharp note of disappointment in his voice.

Ramirez paused, surveying him with a mild hint of surprise. She sighed, her shoulders sagging. “It’s been a long day, Barnes, and I gotta find ice for my hand. I’m sure I’ll be able to check out the next festival.”

“There is a shaved ice stand. It’s on my way back to where Omondi is keeping the goats. I could show you. If you like.” Bucky blurted out.

This is stupid. He was being stupid, but he and Ramirez had been having a good conversation, up until that brief interlude about her hand, and he wanted to know if they could have a conversation, an outing, an afternoon where they could be civil, maybe even be able to have a good time. A part of him, a small nearly non-exist part of him, part of the Bucky from the old days, wanted to see if he could make her laugh, really make her laugh. Just to see if he could. Just to see her eyes light up like they had when they’d been joking around. Just to know he was capable of it, after causing so much pain, he could create joy or happiness, even in the smallest amount. That perhaps he could make amends with someone he’d wronged or maybe even be capable of making friends.

Then again. She might be trying to find a way to politely excuse herself. They didn’t exactly have the best track record with interpersonal interactions, and as she’d said, she’d had a very long day. “I’ll buy you a birthday snow cone.” He added.

“A birthday snow cone?” She echoed, raising an eyebrow, “You’re not going to sing me the birthday song, are you?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He shook his head,

She paused, evaluating her options. Eventually, she nodded slowly. “Okay.”

 “Okay?”

“Okay.” Ramirez repeated, “Shaved ice sounds good. Let me change back into my skirt and sandals, and we’ll get going.”

“Sounds like a solid plan.”

           

***

So this is apparently a thing. Maggie couldn’t help but think as she walked through the Wakandan Festival, shoulder to shoulder with none another than James Barnes.

They weren’t speaking, well weren’t talking at the moment. It had been a long day, but then again, that’s what she’d signed up for. Work hard today, and you’ll work hard again tomorrow. That’s what her grandfather had always said, and that was the life of a rancher. It was a life she’d led for almost 3/4s of her life so far. But it had been a while since she’d done anything closely approximating what she’d done today, and she was sore and tired and not entirely sure she was in the mood for anyone’s company, never mind that of James Barnes.

Certainly, things had been better since he’d stumbled across her laying out under the stars in the middle of the night. They’d had their Tuesday lunch hour and had talked about Becca. That had been nice. Maggie had enjoyed that. She missed her friend, and it was apparent that Barnes was both curious and eager to find out who Becca had been. It was evident that James Barnes, Bucky, still loved his sister very much.

Yet, they’d been cautious. While she wasn’t sure about Barnes, Maggie, in particular, had been careful about the types of questions she’s asked, and the way that she’d answered his questions. For her, it was a matter of mitigating the creepy factor. Maggie still was on edge about how much she knew about Barnes, not just the medical and service record of the Winter Solider if it could be called that, but mainly with the personal information, she had on him. How exactly was she supposed to tell Barnes that his sister had, on several occasions, said that he would’ve loved Maggie had they known each other back in the day? Would it ever be the right time/place/context to talk about the fact that Maggie had developed a crush on the apparition of James Barnes that Becca had painted for her, during their friendship? After all, she had experienced reoccurring dreams with the historic hunk with relative frequency. Including a rainy rescue that ended in warm milk and a kiss on the fire escape, and a birthday snow cone.

So her actual rainy rescue hadn’t involved either warm milk or kissing of any kind, and the snow cone, well the snow cone was circumstantial to her needing ice for her wrist, but still, Maggie was struggling. How the hell was she supposed to sort through the strange array of shit that was now happening? So she’d had a little harmless historical crush that she’d been more than happy to indulge while she was looking for the guy. Had that been such a terrible thing? It had kept her sane, and frankly human, during the whole ordeal. She’d never anticipated that she would be stuck in the same place as him, spending any kind of professional or leisure time with the man. Only now she was. How exactly she planned to deal with that, she didn’t know. She had planned on keeping everything strictly professional, but apparently, even that wasn’t necessarily in the cards.

Let him set the terms for your interactions.

That seemed to make the most sense, and their Tuesday lunches seemed to be a natural outgrowth of his curiosity about his sister. Maggie had more than enough information to supply him, and was happy to provide answers for him.

However, as if her own private conundrum wasn’t enough, there was now apparently the Wakandans increasing interest in her and Barnes’s interactions. Barnes seemed just as perplexed by it as she was, which was comforting in some small way. Did the Wakandans see something that she was missing? Were they just curious about the two strange foreigners in their midst? Was this some kind of entertainment or amusement for them? Or was this simply how the Wakandans were looking out for their well being by encouraging them to become friends?

Maggie didn’t know. And was it so wrong to admit that she’d enjoyed their Tuesday lunches? That talking about Becca again after going so long without even saying her name out loud wasn’t something she looked forward to? Was it horrible to imagine that maybe, just maybe she enjoyed Barnes’s company? Was it wrong to think that perhaps Barnes enjoyed her company too? After all, he’d enticed her out into the fairgrounds with the promise of cold desserts and ice for her hand.

“So that’s what you do, huh?”

Her brain re-engaged in the present at the sound of his voice. “What?” She stammered, glancing over and up at him as they walked.

“I asked, that’s what you do.”

“Oh. With the horses?”

He nodded.

“Well..today was a first...it’s been years since I’ve had to do something like all that. Normally it’s just shoeing horses and shoveling shit.”

“That’s what it looked like back on the ranch.”

“It’s mostly what it was. Which is why I was practically lost out there today.”

“You looked like you knew what you were doing out there.”

“Well, looks can certainly be deceiving. That was superior Wakandan horse training and my teammates picking up the slack for me.” She paused before adding. “But, I do appreciate your positive evaluation of my ability.”

He nodded but didn’t say anything.

"You gotta give me more to work with here, Barnes," is what Maggie wanted to say, but he was buying her a snow cone, so she couldn’t be too critical of his lack of small talk. “What on earth possessed you to sit and watch us sorting cattle? This is a festival. Certainly, there are other events that are at least a little more interesting than watching us work.”

“Not as many people.” He said simply.

“Oh.” He was a veteran, he had PTSD, the amount of energy it took to combat any number of anxiety and triggers, never mind how exhausting the lunch with the royal family was without the extra brain stuff happening, was astronomical. He was probably exhausted from that exertion alone, never mind actually walking and talking and functioning like a normal human being. It certainly put his rather deer in headlights look he’d had when he’d been talking with Jelani earlier into context, and explained his rather succinct answers now. But he hadn’t been that way when they’d been working on the horse. Maggie paused, glancing around at the throng of people. Aware of how the crowd seemed to part before them. Just barely wide enough for them to walk through, and that immediately closed behind them. The strange one-armed white guy. “That makes sense.” She concluded lamely.

So why not just go home?

But she knew the answer. It would raise more questions, and it would ultimately reflect poorly on their hosts, and after everything the royal family had done, it wasn’t worth it. That had more than factored into her decision to accept the invitation to lunch rather than take a nap.

“Did Elder Jelani give you a horse, or are you borrowing one of his?”

“Oh. No.” She rushed, practically stammering. “No. The king gave me a pair for my birthday.” She could feel a blush rising on her cheeks. She didn’t like her birthday, and she could barely stand the idea of a King giving her two horses, even if she did need them. “I feel like it’s conditional ownership, but they are functionally mine. I was riding Stella today, Skywalker is back in the village, very happy to not be working today.”

“Skywalker. As in Luke Skywalker?”

“Yeah.” She couldn’t help but feel some relief at the fact that he didn’t push her further about her birthday, or the gift of the horses, or any of it. Maggie smiled, “Catching up?”

“Yeah. Slowly.”

“I bet.”

 “List’s about a mile long, but doing my best.”

“Well, when you’ve cleared through your backlog, I’m sure I can offer some recommendations. Star Wars may be a classic, but I think you can do better for science fiction films in the last 70 years.”

“I’ve been browsing some lists on the internet, but would welcome any suggestions from anyone over the age of thirty.”

Thirty? It seemed a little arbitrary. “The Princess?” Maggie asked as the thought dawned on her. “She’s been helping you catch up, hasn’t she?”

“Yeah. I think she’d made it her personal mission to give me a crash course on all of the popular culture I’ve missed. It’s been useful, but...” He paused, licking his lips as he tried to find the right words, that panicked expression as he searched and searched for the right word, and it just didn’t come creeping onto his face.

“A bit of a difference in taste.” She supplied.

He exhaled, nodding, his eyes scanning the crowds. “You could say that.” The relief was palpable in his voice.

“Well. As I am over the age of thirty, I am more than happy to provide recommendations for popular culture for any medium from about the mid-1980s to the present.” She said.

Riley would be flipping shit. He had been a huge movie buff, Captain America enthusiast, and a walking history textbook. Maggie knew she would never have heard the end of it, ever, if she didn’t ask. Ask the question, the only question that mattered. The most important plot reveal in modern cinema (with perhaps arguably the twist in Six sense). “So have you seen Empire Strikes back?”

“Yeah?” Barnes answered uncertainly.

“What’d you think?”

“It was fine.” He shrugged.

“Fine?” she echoed. “What’d you think of the whole Darth Vader thing? The big reveal?”

Barnes furrowed his brow as he thought a moment. “The whole, I am your father thing?” He asked after a moment.

“Yeah!”

“Oh.” He hesitated. “Hate to be a downer, but I’ve known about that particular twist since the movie came out.”

She opened her mouth to respond but stopped. Hydra. “Ahh.”

“I did absorb some popular culture through proximity, Ramirez. Personally, I prefer Star Trek, the original series to Star Wars.”

“More science, less shooting?” She supplied.

"Yeah.”

“Becca told me you were a huge nerd.”

“That sounds like her.”

Maggie chuckled but didn’t have time to respond as they arrived at the shaved ice stand. Barnes spoke in passable Wakandan with the stall owner. Maggie had been practicing with Jelani and Sisay, but she couldn’t imagine she’d ever get good enough to be fluent. She wanted to. She was living in-country for the foreseeable future, it would be downright rude if she didn’t at least try, and Wakandan was such a beautiful language. Perhaps the Princess could just implant a language chip in her brain to give her fluency in at least 30 languages, if not more.

“Ramirez, flavor of shaved ice?” Barnes repeated.

“Cherry.” Maggie blurted out.

He hesitated, glancing over at the vendor, who shook his head. “Don’t think they have that one.”

Maggie blushed. “Sorry. Ummm. Coconut.”

Barnes nodded, ordering their shaved ices before he asked the vendor about ice for her hand. She could tell because of the way that he motioned and gestured with his hand. The vendor nodded, glancing at Barnes, then at her, then back at Barnes. Motioning down the line of stalls, he gave Barnes some rapid instructions before he handed over the first of the shaved ices.

“Ice?” Maggie asked as she took the large mound of ice and flavored syrup from him.

“He said that his wife sells something better, a few stalls down.” He explained, handing over a few coins, before taking his shaved ice, thanking the vendor, started walking purposefully.

“Did he say what? I mean, I only really want ice to help with my hand.” She stammered, following after him.

“Apparently something that will last longer than ice. He wasn’t clear. He was just very insistent that we talk to his wife.” He explained.

“Oh.” She frowned.

“It’s melting,” Barnes commented.

“What? Oh.” She glanced down at the mass of ice that was melting over her hand, and took a big bite,

Maggie sighed. It had been forever since she’d had anything this sweet or cold. It satisfied a craving that Maggie hadn’t even realized that she had. She caught Barnes’s gaze, cracked a small smile. “Thanks, this is really amazing.”

“Let’s get your hand taken care of.” He replied.

She didn’t know how to respond to that. She didn’t know if, at this point, he would let her say no. Furthermore, she was intrigued as to what this mini-adventure would yield at the end of their quest. Stopping at the stall, the other vendor had apparently indicated, Maggie paused, “huh.” Her eyes scanned the booth, it looked like jewelry: bracelets, necklaces, and rings, that all seemed to be made of various kinds of metal.

Maggie frowned. She’d seen the stupid copper bracelets advertised on TV, the ones that were supposed to help with pain and joint problems due to Arthritis. It was a load of shit, she’d read the peer-reviewed scientific articles about it, particularly when she’d had a lot of time on her hands back at the Avengers Compound. Was this really what they were suggesting? Here? In Wakanda? Really?

“Is this some kind of placebo?” She blurted out, drawing the attention of both the stall owner and Barnes.

“Perhaps in America, Cowgirl.” The woman running the stall said, sourly, her accent thick. “Come come. Give me your wrist.”

Maggie glanced between Barnes and the stall owner. “You should do it, Ramirez.” Barnes motioned with his head for Maggie to approach.

She did as instructed, hesitantly extending her left hand and wrist to the woman, who took it in both hands and surveyed it carefully. “How?” She asked, before turning to Barnes and giving a more in-depth explanation of her question.

“Crushed.” Maggie made a crushing motion with her right hand, accompanied by what she hoped came across as a crushing noise.

Barnes translated, and the woman nodded. “Ah.” She let go of Maggie’s hand and went to the rows upon rows of bracelets. Selecting one, the stall owner returned to where she and Barnes were standing and put the bracelet around Maggie’s left wrist. “Not Placebo.” The woman said firmly, before making a flexing motion with her hand.

Maggie flexed her hand experimentally and exhaled slowly. It was still stiff, and it still hurt, but it hurt considerably less, and she could actually feel her fingertips, as compared to the fuzzy buzz that she’d experienced for over the past two years. She exhaled sharply, chuckling weakly as she swallowed hard, feeling like she was about to cry. “Thank you.” Maggie managed in the little Wakandan she knew. “How much?”

Barnes cut in, speaking in Wakandan with the shop owner. Setting his shaved ice down, he fished through his satchel and removed some money. He thanked the woman, picked back up his shaved ice, and continued walking.

“Barnes.” She stammered, trailing behind him.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Barnes you, really don’t have to do that. You-it’s-why-just.” Maggie couldn’t quite get her words out. She hadn’t entirely made out how much money was exchanged, but it wasn’t the same as the cost as a snow cone. That she knew for sure.

“Not exactly a pair of Wakandan horses, but should be good enough for a belated birthday present.” He commented, taking a sizable bite of his shaved ice

“You didn’t have to do that.” She managed finally.

He chewed and swallowed before replying. “How does your hand feel?”

“That’s not the point, Barnes.” Maggie said, “How much do I owe you?”

“I said, don’t worry about it.” He shrugged.

Maggie opened and closed her mouth, trying to find something to say. This was a losing battle, what was she going to do? Go return the bracelet? She looked down at it, glinting in the light. It was a multi-strand bracelet that fastened with a single clasp. Each strand was comprised of two or three wires strung through beads no bigger than a pearl, spaced out at random intervals along each strand. The beads while all grey had different sheens, some more blue or purple, while others were more red or green.

She hadn’t bought herself jewelry in years and hadn’t received jewelry in just as long. She just didn’t wear it mostly, and now she’d been given several very lovely pieces within the span of a few hours.

Yet it was more than just that. It was the fact that this wasn’t just something beautiful, but also function, easing a physical pain, a pain that had been inadvertently caused by the gift given. Maggie glanced up at Barnes. Did he realize the symbolism? The significance of his gift? Or was this random act of kindness exactly that, random. It didn’t matter. She could see it and would stop being difficult about it, at least for now.

“Thank you, Barnes. It’s beautiful and functional. I’ll have to find a way to get you back.”

“I’d say you really don’t have to, but I know you’re going to ignore me anyway," Barnes replied.

Maggie smiled, “You’re a quick study.”

“Wouldn’t say that per-say. You’re just stubborn, even I can recognize patterns.” He joked sarcastically. Pausing, he glanced over at her, a measure of uncertainty on his face as he tried to figure out if he’d overstepped.

“I am a stubborn ass, I’ll grant you, but then again, so are you, James Barnes.” She laughed lightly.

“Using first and last names, I see.”

At this, Maggie froze. “That’s all right, isn’t it?”

“You can call me whatever you want, Ramirez. I think you of all people have earned that right.”

“Well. That goes for you too. And let me just officially state for the record I’m glad we’ve moved beyond the point of you calling me ma’am.”

“Message received and understood.” He replied. “How’s your shaved ice?”

“Good.” She said, taking a drink of the remaining slush. Maggie paused, mulling over her next words. “Thank you, Barnes, for letting me talk about your sister. I’ve enjoyed our Tuesday lunches. It’s been really nice talking about Becca again. I appreciate it.”

Barnes nodded. “Me too, Ramirez.”

They both stopped, glancing one another over. Maggie realized that they had returned to the edge of the festival and that the stalls were now only a couple hundred yards away. “Well. Thank you for this, Barnes. It was an adventure.” She drank up the rest of the slush, tossing the cup into the recycle bin.

“Thanks for letting me treat you to a birthday snow cone, and a belated gift.”

“You strong-armed me on the gift, but I do appreciate it, my hand does feel much better.”

“Glad to hear.” He finished off his snow cone, likewise throwing the paper cup into the recycle bin.

There was this pause, this moment of hesitation as they both looked each other over as if they were both waiting for the other to say something first.

“I had fun.” She said.

“Me too.”

“See you on Tuesday for lunch?”

“I look forward to it.”

Maggie smiled, “Sounds good. And do let me know if you want or need movie recommendations. Deal?” She extended her hand to him.

“Deal," He nodded. Taking her hand, they shook on it.

His grip was firm, warm, and she couldn’t help but notice a little sticky from the shaved ice, but Maggie also couldn’t help but notice how cautious it still felt, as though he was afraid he was going to break her.

“Heyi, Cowgirl! Find your ice?” One of her fellow riders called some distance off.

Barnes left go of her hand as if they’d been caught in the act of doing something nefarious or unsavory.

“Yeah, I did.” She called back, rolling her eyes.

“They’re going to talk.” He commented, looking more sheepish than she ever could’ve imagined possible for a man who’d lived the life he had.

“They were going to talk regardless.” Maggie shrugged. “Anyway, I won’t detain you any longer. Thanks again for everything. I’ll see you on Tuesday.”

“See you on Tuesday.” He nodded.

Maggie turned and walked back toward the stables, leaving Barnes behind her. It had been a long and exhausting day, but, Maggie would argue, a good one. She paused, glancing over her shoulder at Barnes, who was watching her hasty retreat back to the stables, and a broad smile crossed her face, her right hand going to her left wrist, fiddling with one of the strands of the vibranium bracelet. It had been a good day, and now she had another Tuesday to look forward to in the future.

Chapter Text

It was Tuesday again, and it had been exactly a week since they’d had their interaction at the fairgrounds. As Bucky approached Jelani’s workshop and barn, he couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement. He’d been looking forward to Tuesday since last Tuesday. He wanted to know if Ramirez had come up with anything new for him to watch, and was equally as eager to share what he’d watched, read, and learned over the last week.

He rounded the final corner, leading to the village, and saw her spread out of on a blanket in their usual spot under one of the massive trees that were clustered around the workshop. Ramirez looked perfectly at ease, her lunch placed out in front of her, she sat crossed legged, a book open across her lap. Her face, while bent in focus and concentration, was partially obscured by a screen of hair. Her hair, rather than wrapped around her head in a braid, hung in a loose braid that ended somewhere around her waist. She brushed loose strands out of her face caught by the light wind, the bracelet around her left wrist glinting in the light.

So she’s actually wearing it.

He felt oddly flattered. Bucky had continuously debated with himself on whether the bracelet had been too much if he’d overstepped the bounds of propriety by buying her something like that. In the end, he’d ultimately decided it didn’t matter if it worked for her, and she wore it, great. If not, he’d done it out of an impulse more than anything rational, and there was nothing lost by her not wearing it. But she was wearing it. It made him happy.

“You wanna unload this now, Ramirez, or after lunch?” He called to her, as he arrived with the feed cart, announcing his presence.

“After. I’ve already started eating.” She answered without looking up from her book.

Bucky nodded, unhooking the mule, whom he’d privately nicknamed Sally, from the cart and tying her off to one of the posts, he collected his satchel and walked over to where Ramirez was sitting.

 Sinking down on his regular corner, removed his lunch, and his satchel from his bag, while she silently closed the book, she was reading and set it aside. With a heavy sigh, she looked up at him, “hi.”

“Hi.”

“How’s your week been?” She asked pleasantly, diving into what looked like chopped chicken, mixed vegetables, and couscous.

“Uneventful.”

“I take it that’s a good thing.”

“Yeah.” He agreed. “You?”

“I think I can finally say I’m settling into a routine. Trying to find work/life balance. Yanno. Trying to find and maintain good self-care practices for the sake of my mental and physical health.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“Oh. It’s horrible.” She shook her head, chuckling lightly. “But, I have been looking forward to lunch today.”

“You have?” Bucky asked, wincing internally at the surprise in his own voice.

“Absolutely. Been thinking through pop culture recommendations, and I realized I don’t know what you’ve seen, what you’ve already been recommended, or what even you’d be interested in reading, watching, or listening to. Other than the fact that you’re a huge nerd.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, “Thanks for that one, Bec.”

“Don’t worry, your sister did not discriminate. Steve was...is according to her a huge art snob, who apparently had very strong feelings about Citizen Kane.”

Bucky scoffed. “That’s putting it mildly. Steve ranted for weeks about that film. ‘Oh, boo hoo poor rich guy feels bad about his life, fuck off with your pro-capitalist propaganda.’ He was ready to throw fists with Orson Welles, surprised he didn’t, to be honest, considering the types of circles Stevie ran in during his showgirl days.”

 He stopped, looking up at Ramirez, who was watching him with an amused expression. “What?” He asked.

“Sounds like Steve’s always been a little shit.” She giggled.

“Only a little?”

Ramirez bobbed her head side to side, “Yeah, okay. You make a fair point.”

“So why where you and Bec talking about Citizen Kane?”

“Oh. We were talking about the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest Films.”

“Oh yeah.” He pulled out his journal and opened it to where he’d started writing out movie suggestions to one corner he’d written out, AFI (1998/2007?) “Which list do you recommend?”

“Oh. Ummm. Jeeze. I’ve actually never made it through the list. Citizen Kane always hung me up, and I couldn’t force myself to watch Casablanca or The Godfather. Riley really was the one to push me to watch things outside of my cinematic wheelhouse. It’s a shame really, he would’ve had a thousand excellent suggestions. I’m far less sophisticated in my movie choices.” Ramirez shook her head.

Right Riley Underdhal, Sam Wilson’s partner and Ramirez’s husband, deceased. Bucky wasn’t sure how to respond, mainly when it came to Wilson or her dead husband, so he pivoted slightly. “Any reason, in particular, why you don’t want to watch The Godfather or Casablanca?”

“Eeehhh.” She shrugged. “Godfather is hyper-violent, I’ve read the book, don’t really have any desire to see the movie. As for Casablanca.” She paused, surveying him. “I’m not entirely a fan of WWII media.”

“Oh?” Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell Steve, he starred in a dozen or so WWII movies.”

 Ramirez chuckled, shaking her head. “I’ve seen them, they’re terrible.”

“They really are.” Bucky agreed. “But Casablanca is supposed to be the second or third greatest film of all time.”

“Forgive me and my cinema faux pas, but with Citizen Kane as the number one, I’m a little skeptical.”

“Well. If you were to ask Steve, after he’s calmed down about Orson Welles trying to make us feel sorry for some rich ass-hole, he would explain that Citizen Kane was innovative for how it was shot, the type of lighting, that sort of stuff.”

“Well. I’ll have to try my luck next time I have a minute with Steve, and ask.”

“Well, make sure I’m not around. I don’t wanna have to sit through that again.”

“Understood and duly noted.”

“But really Ramirez. As a resident geezer of the 1940s variety, I gotta ask, what’s your beef?”

She snorted, shaking her head.“Believe it or not, it’s not actually beef with the 1940s, per se. It’s about how the war is remembered, and how all the horrible shit has been swept under the rug.”

“Well, now, I’m curious.”

“The short answer?” Ramirez asked hesitantly, looking him over. “I don’t like what war does to people, and I don’t like the romanticization of war. WWII get that a lot. It was the Good War, and the 1940s is often looked back upon with rose-colored glasses, despite everything that was actually happening, and the realities of that war on the lives of millions of people.”

Like me? He would’ve asked.  But he didn’t. They both knew that she meant people like him, only he was an outlier to an already horrible situation. Beyond her present company, she’d spent years helping battle-scarred veterans back at the Ranch, before he came along and ruined it. She had a right to her particular feelings, and she wasn’t wrong. It just didn’t leave very much room for conversation.

He nodded. There was a long pause as they both tried to find something to say. “For what it’s worth, Ramirez. I think you might like Casablanca.”

“Oh? And why’s that?”

“Call it intuition.”

She snorted, “Anything more substantial than that, James Barnes?”

“No.”

“No? Come on, man, you can’t just recommend it and then not explain why.”

“I dunno. I think I just did.” He shrugged. “It’s been a while. Ask me again after you’ve watched it.”

Ramirez paused. “Okay.”

“Just like that?”

“Yeah. I’m willing to give it a shot, do you wanna come over tonight and watch it?”

Bucky blinked blankly, as his brain processed what his ears had just heard. An invitation. From Ramirez? “I wouldn’t want to intrude,” He said, his brain immediately supplying the answer for him.

“Intrude? Barnes, I have absolutely no social life to speak of aside from our Tuesday lunches. Besides, if I’m going to watch this nonsense, I need the resident geezer of a 1940s variety to give me a little bit of context and background.”

“I’m going to regret saying that, aren’t I?” Bucky rolled his eyes.

“It’s very possible.” She said, barely containing a shit-eating grin. “Com’ on Barnes. It’ll be fun. I’ll make sopapillas.”

Bucky hesitated, thinking through the rest of his day. It wasn’t like he was super busy, he did have his routine. He would be going to the capitol for his usual brain check-up with the princess after he finished the feed route. After that, the evening was more or less open. What had he planned to do to occupy himself? Well, he had some reading to do, he was working through suggested Wikipedia articles and memoirs, then whenever he got sick of that or couldn’t concentrate, he’d maybe journal a bit. If he felt really ambitious, he’d watch a movie or listen to music, but that was only if his brain wasn’t louder than what he was trying to focus on. All of this would be alone, of course, but that’s what he was used to. He’d done that for two and half years, and in the month after he’d left cryo when Steve had returned to his life with the Secret Avengers. Alone was quiet. Alone was safe. Alone gave a relative amount of certainty to his life, where he otherwise struggled to achieve normality. Alone meant he wasn’t bothering Ramirez any more than his presence already did. Yet, he found that Tuesday lunches were the highlight of his otherwise solitary life, and from the sounds of it, might be Ramirez’s too. Perhaps he did need a friend more than he’d previously realized. Maybe they both did.

“Let me think about it.” He answered finally.

“Sure.” She shrugged, “movie starts at 7:30 with or without your sorry ass.”

“Understood. With or without my sorry ass.” Bucky replied in an exaggerated monotone.

Ramirez giggled, “Well when you say it that way, it sounds even sorrier.”

“Thanks for that, Ramirez.”

“No problem Barnes.”

 They spent the rest of the lunch hour talking through both of the AFI greats movie lists. They had others, such as the top 100 Most Inspiring Films of all time, 100 Greatest movie quotes of all time, 100 greatest Romance movies, but for now, the top 100 Greatest American films of all time list was where Bucky was going to start. 

“So 7:30, Barnes.” Ramirez commented as they finished offloading the feed. ”If you’d decided to join me, that is,” She added quickly.

“I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Well, we need to exchange contact information. Do you have your kimoyo bracelet?”

“No.”

“Okay. Well, do you know your number?”

“Oh. no.” Bucky said.

“Naturally.” She chuckled. “Stay right there. I’m going to get a pen.”

“I actually have pretty good information retention.”

“I have no doubt, James Barnes. But I’m not going to give you the excuse of ‘I forgot,’” She chuckled as she walked back to the workshop.

 She re-emerged a moment later with what looked like a felt-tipped pen and uncapped it as she approached. “Hand.” She instructed firmly, putting her left hand out.

Bucky rolled his eyes but did as she instructed, and placing his hand in her left palm watched as she carefully wrote out her number on the top of his hand in neat and tidy print. “Did you ever have to memorize a girls’ numbers back in the day?”

“No.”

“Oh. So this would be a first,” She chuckled, blowing gently on the drying ink.

“You could say that, sure.”

“Good, good.” She said, releasing her grasp on his wrist, and re-capping the pen.

“How’s the bracelet working out for you?” He motioned to her wrist with his chin.

“Oh," Ramirez said shortly, massaging her left wrist with her right hand. “I’ve had no fewer than three people ask we’re engaged, which I don’t think will be helped by writing my number on your arm. But the bracelet has helped some. See look.” She held both her hands up side by side, the left one had a tremor to it, but it wasn’t nearly as pronounced as it had been the weeks before. “Not so bad as before. Plus I have more feeling in my fingertips, and not feeling quite as achy. I can’t thank you enough.”

“I’m glad it’s working for you.” Bucky nodded. “Lunch was fun, thank you for your recommendations.”

“Of course. See you tonight?”

He hesitated, looking her over. “I dunno quite yet.” He admitted.

If she was disappointed or relieved, Ramirez’s expression didn’t show. “Well, if not, see you next week, same time, same place?”

“You can count on it.”

“Have a good one, Barnes.”

“You too, Ramirez.”

“Thanks,” She smiled, turning away and walking back to the workshop to return to her tasks for the day.

 Taking his mule cart, he started back down the path and returned to his route and the rest of his day.

 

***

 

Maggie watched Barnes disappeared down the path that led him back to his feed route out of the corner of her eyes, and silently cursed at herself.

Now, why did I do that? She wondered as the sound of his cart faded out of earshot.  I thought I was going to let him control the parameters of our interaction, and now I’ve gone and invited the guy over to watch a movie.

Things had changed, they’d changed the moment they’d decided to hang out at the midwinter festival over a week ago. They’d moved from work friendship into an ambiguous, precarious state where it could either stay at impersonal work-friendship or they could find themselves develop an actual factual friendship.

Maggie didn’t mind the work-friendship. Your friendship began and ended when you clocked in and out. You were happy to bitch about your manager together, but you aren’t going to invite them to your weekend cookout. It limited topics of discussion to decidedly safe things, there was no real commitment, and you eventually parted ways when you left your position with the given company.

You pathetic, sad little woman.

She didn’t like to admit it, but she was lonely and sad. The fact that she’d enjoyed and thought about last week almost constantly was a testament to that fact.

No man should be an island, and even when she’d been at her lowest, she’d always had people there to help her carry her load, On Last Chance Ranch, she’d had her friends, volunteers, clients around that gave her a sense of normalcy and routines. With the Avengers, she’d had Steve, Sam, Natasha, and Becca, with their meetings, briefings, workouts, and lunches. They had all kept her from going completely out of her skull, even if she had been very close a few times.

 Now she was here in Wakanda, and she had her work but not much else. That wasn’t to say she wasn’t grateful. She was. The King, Jelani, Teela, Sisay, and the Princess Shuri, they allowed her to have this little bit of normalcy. But she didn’t have friends. The Wakandans had been nothing but kind and generous, and she enjoyed Jelani and Sisay and Teela’s company, but they had their lives with their friends and social network. She was a guest at best, she wouldn’t inflict her presence on them any more than she already had. She worked with Jelani and Sisay, and Teela had been tremendously gracious with her time and energy, helping her adjust to life in Wakanda and the village. They were only doing it because their King had asked it of them. Not exactly the best basis to create friendships.

So she worked, and kept her head down, and tried not to make waves. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was better than being dead.

 It might have even been doable if not for James Barnes.

It wasn’t his fault, it was the situation, the circumstances, it was the fact they had a history together, a number of mutual friends, and both knew a shit ton about one another without really knowing the other person.

 It was a recipe for disaster, but she was bored and lonely, and watching an old movie with the guy didn’t mean anything.

 In context, It made sense.

Which is why you’re thinking through the entire conversation you just had with him and analyzing everything.

 Well, what else was she supposed to do? She had a lot of time on her hands. She had a safe, beautiful little house, a job, and a routine, but she didn’t have a life. Sometimes all you could do in that scenario was to analyze every interaction with the only other American in at least 1,000 square miles.

Which is why you’ve invited James Barnes over to watch a movie.

She’d invited, he had yet to accept her invitation, but Maggie knew with some certainty she’d be a little disappointed if he didn’t show and she might be forced to watch Casablanca by herself.

 That was a strange revelation. She wanted to be around him, she wanted to talk to him, she wanted to watch this stupid movie with him. That like it or not, there was a strange type of familiarity between them. Steve, Becca, and even Sam had created a common ground for them to explore. It connected them in a way that neither of them could deny. They were still on strange, and at times even awkward territory, but he had a quiet type of humor about him, and Maggie could admit that she had more than a little fun giving him shit.

Yeah, a little shit, which is why you were being cutesy with the whole writing down your number on his hand, you may as well have signed it with little Xs and Os.

It had been the practical thing in the circumstances, and anyway, it wasn’t as if Barnes had minded.

Right, like you could tell.

What did she expect him to do? Wrench his hand away like her touch physically pained him? It was always possible that he’d refrained from doing exactly that, that he’d go home and scrub the writing off.

Would he actually confirm with her one way or the other? It was anyone’s guess.

Maggie paused outside of her empty hut and sighed. Her brain was getting away from her. Whatever had happened, it ultimately didn’t matter. Whatever Barnes decided she’d abide. For better or worse. Which option was which, Maggie wasn’t entirely sure. Still, she had the nagging suspicion that despite herself, the company of James Barnes would be infinitely preferable to spending yet another evening alone.

 

***

 

 Bucky found himself on his back yet again, starring at the ceiling of the Royal Wakandan Laboratory, the vaguest sensation of pine and mint lingering in the edge of his recollection as The Princess worked around him, the only sound in the lab was the Wakandan Hip hop she liked to play, though mercifully turned to low.

“So, any plans for this evening?” The princess inquired, breaking their customary silence while she scanned his brain.

 Bucky paused, the peculiar innocence of her question, raising several alarms. “Not particularly, why?”

“You have Magdalene’s number written on your hand, and you seem to be thinking of her with relative frequency.”

“Oh.” Bucky glanced down at his hand, where Ramirez had indeed written her number. He frowned. “Wait, I thought you said you couldn’t see my thoughts.”

“I can’t. I’ve been mapping your brain activity. Certain areas of your brain light up in specific ways when you’re thinking about her. Same with Captain Rogers. Although, I only assume the thoughts are about Ms. Ramirez because you had your weekly Tuesday lunch with her.”

She wasn’t wrong, and yet it took Bucky everything he had not to roll his eyes. Is there some sort of betting pool I’m unaware of, Ramirez had asked in jest. At the moment,  Bucky was beginning to think that she wasn’t too far from the truth.

“We aren’t trying to put you two together, singing songs in the grass so that you’ll kiss, Barnes.” The princess commented, shaking her head.

“Little mermaid?” Bucky ventured uncertainly.

“No. I mean, yes, I mean any number of Disney movies, but yes, close enough.” She said brusquely. “I only ask, because I’m glad you’re having regular human interactions with someone approximating your own age, and with key things in common.”

“Key things in common?”

“You’re both living and working as guests in my country. You’re both friends with Steve Rogers. I’m sure there are other things which you’ll only be able to find out if you spend more time together.” She commented.

“I thought you said I should minimize stimuli to allow my brain to heal.” He said lamely. Knowing that it was a cop-out, at the very best.

“Yes, for like three weeks to a month. I did not spend all that time putting your mind back together for you to isolate yourself from other people forever. If you wanted that, we could just stick you back in the deep freeze. You need to be around people and interact with people, not spend your free time moping. You need to live.”

“I’m not moping, and besides, who says she wants anything to do with me?” Bucky protested though he knew it was a losing battle.

“She wrote her number on your hand, James Barnes.” The princess said crossly. “That obviously indicates at least some interest on her part.”

This was true, yet he couldn’t help but get the feeling that Ramirez was only being hospitable out of some obligation to his sister and to Steve. Yet, the princess made a good point. Ramirez had been fairly adamant about why she didn’t want to watch Casablanca, or rather particularly why she didn’t like WWII era media. Then, she’d agreed to watch the movie shortly after he’d told her that he thought she might like it. He did believe that she would like it, but for her to agree to give it a shot, and then invite him over to watch it with her, it did indicate a certain willingness to be in his presence beyond their Tuesday lunch hour. 

“Would it be so terrible to try to make friends with her, Barnes?” The princess continued when he didn’t respond.

No. It wouldn’t.  “I don’t think that’s entirely up to me, Princess.” Bucky managed after a moment.

“Well, I think you should go watch the movie with her and find out.” She replied firmly.

“I’ll take that under advisement, provided you all stop trying to make Ramirez and me friends," Bucky said blandly.

“Okay, okay. But I stand by what I said, you shouldn’t be isolating yourself. Go out, live a little.” She replied.

 They finished up the scan, and The princess sent him on his way after declaring that his brain was still fatty, wrinkly and that everything still looked just fine.

Bucky walked home engaged in a silent debate with himself the entire time. 

He should go watch it with her. He had to admit, beyond the simple question of watching a movie with Ramirez or not watching a movie with Ramirez, he was curious. Curious to know what she thought, curious to unpack her little rant about WWII, curious to know her as a person.

Was that strange? Bucky wasn’t sure. It should be strange, or at the very least it should feel strange, but it didn’t. He didn’t. In fact, he appreciated the very fact that he didn’t feel strange when contemplating a friendship with Ramirez, namely because she didn’t treat him like an oddity, like some kind of sideshow. Not that the Wakandans really did that. Sure, the kids asked their nosy questions, but otherwise, people were polite. There was a level of separation and the silent curiosity that shaded every interaction he had with people, but nothing that was unbearable or otherwise unexpected.

 Bucky knew all about that, but from a lifetime ago and from a different perspective than the one he now inhabited. He’d grown up, after all, in the shadow of The Great War. His father had served and had invited some of his war buddies over to the house for dinner on occasion. He’d worked alongside veterans. He’d grown up seeing Veterans of The Great War, missing limbs, or some of their features. That had been easy for the young Bucky to understand why people spoke their names in hushed, often pitying tones.

It was when those same tones were used when discussing Veterans who didn’t have a scratch on them that Bucky, as a child, hadn’t understood. He remembered the horrible, empty, hollow expression that one of his father’s friends from the war had always given Bucky when he'd visited. Wally. His name was or had been. Wally had ended up hanging himself. Winifred Barnes had sent over meals for a month to Wally’s widow after the fact.

Shell-shock or War Fatigue, that’s what they’d called it and had only started to understand. They had a better name for it now and were starting to develop better treatments for it now, too. As a small child, Bucky had always wondered what could happen to a person to make them like that. Now he didn’t need to wonder. Instead, he struggled to remember a time he hadn’t been plagued by memories of battlefields, of blood and screaming, of death. Now, he was one of those people, one of those people that got whispered about, because of what had happened to him. One of those people who would’ve been talked about in sad, mournful tones, normally reserved for those in the past tense.

I don’t like what war does to people.

That’s what she’d said, and of course, it only made sense to Bucky that she wouldn’t. She’d lost a husband, and friends, and clients to war and it’s lingering after-effects. She’d spent her professional life, up until the point that he’d ruined it, helping people like him. Was that was she was doing this? Was that why she was extending the hand of friendship to him? She knew in vivid detail what he was and what he’d been through. Was she trying, in her own way, to fix him out of perhaps some obligation to Steve or to Becca?

It didn’t feel that way. And he hoped, perhaps against all hope, that it wasn't the case.

Bucky sighed, shaking his head.

He didn’t know and knew he wasn’t likely to find out unless he accepted her movie invitation. The problem was he was tired. It wasn’t just that he’d not been sleeping well, which he hadn’t, but this was a sort of exhaustion, a sort of weariness of the soul. An exhaustion that he felt in his bones. He wasn’t sure if he could manage human interaction, at least not where his headspace was at the moment.

If I could just get one good night’s sleep, then maybe I might have the energy for human interactions.

Bucky almost snorted at the very thought, although he wasn’t sure at what part of it. The prospect of getting a good night’s rest, or the idea that any amount of sleep might enable him to function like a “normal” human being. Both were totally laughable, but he knew Shuri was right. He needed regular interactions, but he didn’t want to insert himself into Wakandan social circles, where he would be a guest at the very best and an outsider at the very worst. Which left Ramirez. Was she in the same situation? Is that why she’d invited him over?

The only way to find out is to accept the invitation and find out.

He arrived home and slipped on his kimoyo bracelet. Opening and carefully typing in Ramirez’s number, he hesitated.

It’s not that hard. It shouldn’t be this hard. Bucky silently chastised himself.

 Taking a deep breath, he typed in the message, “I’m on for a movie @ 7:30. Should I bring something?” And he hit send before he could second guess himself and delete the message.

The message read as delivered, and Bucky held his breath, watching the “typing” bubble in the corner until her message came through. “Something to drink if you want something other than water. Otherwise, just yourself. 7:30 sharp, Barnes.”

He exhaled slowly. Well, that was that. He was socially obligated now, and it would be even worse to cancel plans he’d confirmed than actually going.  It was settled he was going to watch Casablanca with Ramirez.

           

***

 

Maggie stood over the pan, eyes fixed on the frying dough, her ear trained for the sound of approaching footsteps, doing her best not to think about what she had done to herself. This was a mistake, you should never have extended the invitation.

Barnes had accepted her invitation at a quarter to six, and Maggie had spent the entire hour since then panicking.

Why, exactly, she wasn’t sure, but as soon as she’d received his message, her heart rate had soared and she’d more or less decided that she’d rather be back in Juarez facing down the cartels, than hosting a social event. Sure it was just Barnes, and sure they had regularly been meeting every Tuesday for lunch, but it didn’t matter. Besides, Tuesday lunches were different. They were on neutral territory for a fixed amount of time, which was far different from an open-ended invitation to hang out and watch a movie.

I’m making sopapillas for christ's sake. I wouldn’t do that for a Tuesday lunch get together.

 She flipped over the dough and watched the golden-brown dough crackle and glisten with grease in the evening sun. The torches that illuminated the small are around her hut would turn on soon, the night would take over, and it would be time. 

Maggie checked the time, 7:45. He’s late. She wasn’t sure if she should feel relieved or disappointed. Anyway, if he didn’t show up, what the hell was she going to do with all of these sopapillas?   She’d made six of them, but would probably only eat two or three, at the very most.

I wonder if Tee or Jelani would be interested...had something happened? Why had he changed his mind? Would he call? Text? Or just wait until next Tuesday to explain. Would he show back up at all? Or have I overstepped some unknown, unseen boundary, and now he never wanted to talk to me again?

Maggie shook her head, removing the golden-brown squares of dough from the oil, set them aside to drain and cool. She’d even found some Wakandan honey for the occasion. Oh well. More for me, I guess.

“What happened to starting the movie at 7:30 sharp, Ramirez? With or without my sorry ass, I believe was the expression you used.”

It took Maggie everything she had not to jump out of her skin, but she hadn’t heard his approach.

Damn. How the hell did he do that? He's the winter Soldier you moron.

Maggie turning around, she found James Barnes strolling casually up the path toward her hut. “I lost track of time, what’s your excuse?” She said, doing her best to sound light-hearted and as much at ease as she could manage.

“I was on a mission.” He admitted hesitantly. Stopping as he reached the fire pit where she was working he, opened the satchel he had slung across his chest and removed a small little pouch, which he extended to her carefully.

Wordlessly, Maggie took it in both hands, and untied the drawstring, glancing inside. “Corn kernels? You found popcorn?” She asked, glancing between Barnes, who wore an uncertain expression, and the small little bag of kernels she was holding.

“Not indigenous to Wakanda. Apparently, King T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, was a fan of American Cinema, and imported popcorn plant specimens and had some of the farmers carefully cultivate some, so as not to introduce any sort of invasive species. I had to ask around a bit, but was able to procure some kernels for our movie night, this evening.” He explained seriously. “Because what’s a movie without popcorn?”

Maggie opened and closed her mouth, totally stunned. How fucking thoughtful. This is unbelievable. What the hell?

“Thank you, Barnes.”

“So, I hope that excuses my tardiness.”

Maggie surveyed his expression. Was he joking? Was he being serious? Was he being aloof? She couldn’t be certain, but a smile spread across her face. “It will. Only if you agree to make the popcorn. I’m a tad rusty.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” He nodded firmly. “Do you mind if I?” He motioned to his bag.

“Not at all, make yourself comfortable. As promised, I made sopapillas and even found Wakandan honey for the occasion.”

“I look forward to trying them.” He replied as he set his bag down and glanced around. “Pot with lid, oil, and salt?”

“Yeah, sure. Let me get this pan off the fire.” Maggie said, moving quickly replaced the pan with a pot, setting out the oil and salt on the small preparation table beside the cooking fire.

“You excited?” Barnes asked as he worked, diligently adding the oil, kernels, and salt to the pot, covering it, and placing it over the fire.

“About?”

“Casablanca?’ He answered without looking up at her.

“Oh. Yeah. Right. Yes.” She managed. That. She’d nearly forgotten that they were going to be watching a movie together, mostly she’d just been hung up on the idea that he was coming over to hang out with her after working hours.

“Your enthusiasm is overwhelming, Ramirez.”

“Was still a little hung up on the idea that you brought popcorn for us.” She said, “And If I’m honest, I’m probably more excited about the popcorn than I am the movie. But that’s just because I love food. And the combination of the sweet sopapillas and the salty popcorn is going to be AMAZING.” Maggie caught herself before she could outright giggle, but the sound she made was somewhere between a cough and a laugh, and Barnes looked her over with something between curiosity and amusement.

Mercifully he didn’t say anything. “I was thinking about the last movie I saw in theaters. What was the last movie you saw in theaters?”

“Oh. Jeeze, you would have to ask that.” Maggie chuckled. Pausing, she closed her eyes, straining to remember the sound of popping from the pot, making it hard to focus. “Disney’s Brave, I believe.” She stopped. “Oh.”

“What?”

“Suzanne dragged me out of the house to see it.” After Riley died. She had to stop herself from saying it. Maggie opened her eyes and shaking her head.

“Should I add it to the list?” Barnes asked uncertainly as he removed the popcorn from over the fire and set it down on the table beside the sopapillas.

“Oh. It’s a fun little movie, but not one of my favorites. What about you?”

“Laura. I think.” He answered.

“Oh. I’ve seen that one! It’s great!” Maggie said.

“Really? I thought you didn’t like 1940s media.”

“I didn’t say that. I don’t like WWII media. If I’m remembering the same film, it's not WWII related, at all. Is it the one where Laura is “killed," and the detective is trying to find out who killed her, and then she ends up not actually being dead?”

“That would be the one.”

“It has one of my favorite lines. ‘You ever known a woman who wasn’t a doll or dame detective McPherson?’” Maggie said in her best Clifton Webb impersonation. She giggled, shaking her head. “My girlfriend, at the time, Margaret convinced me to watch it. For Halloween, actually.”

Barnes opened his mouth to respond, but stopped, closing his mouth promptly.

“Didn’t expect that one did you?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.

“You didn’t both go by Maggie, did you?”

Now it was her turn to be surprised. She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times before shutting it.

“Didn’t expect that one did you?” Barnes echoed, also raising an eyebrow.

Maggie chuckled, “No. Actually. But to answer your question, she went by her full name, and I was either Maggie or Mags. But I can imagine how confusing it would’ve been if we’d both gone by Maggie.”

“I can imagine.” He paused, a look of hard contemplation crossing his face. Maggie braced for whatever was next before he spoke. “And the line is ‘did you ever know a woman who wasn’t a doll or a dame?’ I do remember that much.”

She smiled, the tension in her chest easing slightly. “Okay, okay. I defer to you as to the accuracy, but I’ll maintain my version is superior. Did you like the movie at the very least?”

“I did.”

“Well. Let’s find out if you’re right.”

“Right?”

“See if I’m going to like Casablanca.”

“Right.”

“Come on. Bring the popcorn. We’re going to sit inside if that’s okay. I set up a screen and will project it from one of my kimoyo beads. I’ve made sopapillas as promised, and have Wakandan honey to put on top. Otherwise, you’re just going to get a wad of fried dough.” She explained picking up the plate of sopapillas and honey, and he followed her into her small hut with the popcorn. “Provided you don’t mind sitting on my mat.” She commented, sinking down easily onto the floor.

“Not at all.” He shook his head, pausing he glanced her over.

From her vantage point on the floor, Maggie watched Barnes struggle as he contemplated where exactly he should sit. Doing the same algebra, and reaching similar conclusions, Maggie moved the plate of sopapillas to her left, and following suit, Barnes sat down to her left, setting the pot of popcorn between them.

“Pillows and blankets can be provided upon request. Let me know.” She commented as she set up the kimoyo bead and began to project the film.

"I should be fine. The movie isn't that long." He replied, picking up a spoonful of honey and drizzling it over one of the sopapillas.

“Well, here goes nothin'.” She said as she pressed play.

The Warner Brother’s logo came up and then the 1940s black and white map. Maggie couldn’t help but watch Barnes out of the corner of her peripheral vision. He was here. They’d had a relatively normal conversation. They were going to watch a movie while eating homemade snacks, and somehow despite herself, she was having a lovely time. Was he having a good time? She could only guess. Were they becoming friends? Only time would tell. But the whole thing hadn’t felt awkward, even though it probably should. Instead, it had felt natural, had felt almost normal. What it meant, Maggie would discover later, but for now, Casablanca.

But the others wait in Casablanca...and wait...and wait...and wait.

           

***

           

“Louie, have your man go with Mr. Lazlo, and take care of his luggage.”

 Bucky glanced over at Ramirez, her eyes were glued to the screen, the flicking light of the screen, reflecting in her eyes. She absently chewed on the popcorn as she watched, seemingly totally engrossed. He’d forgotten quite a bit of the film since he’d first watched it, and it still held up even now over seventy years later, but what made the whole thing worthwhile was Ramirez’s reactions to the movie with her eye-rolling and frustrated groaning at all the key moments. They’d eaten the Sopapillas in the first act, and now they were working through the ample supply of popcorn, but mostly, Bucky was watching Ramirez.

He’d felt bad about arriving late, but apparently, Ramirez hadn’t minded. She’d been very enthusiastic about the popcorn, more so than he’d expected, but the whole exchange about her ex-girlfriend had been, strange, to say the very least. It had taken him off guard how open and blasé she’d been about mentioning a girlfriend. Yet, Bucky found that logically it made sense, she hadn’t made a fuss or a big deal over the fact that he’d had relationships with both Steve and Natasha, and the way he’d understood it, through Steve, Ramirez and Sam had been in a polyamorous triad with Riley, prior to his death. Still, the fact that she’d felt comfortable enough to out herself, to him, in such a relaxed and casual way, there was something about that made Bucky’s chest warm.

Other than their briefly awkward exchange, the evening was going well, he would argue. He’d even made her laugh. She had seemed a little tense when he’d first arrived, but that had quickly dissipated, and now her whole demeanor was relaxed. Her braid had almost completely unwound itself, and her hair fell over her face. Her rigid posture had melted into something softer, her shoulder’s less tense, her jaw not quite as clenched, her eyes and mouth bent in natural smiles and laughs.

“You’re saying this only to make me go!” 

I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us we both know you belong with Victor, you’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it.”

“Lord," Ramirez said, her Texan twang thick with sarcasm.

“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”

But what about us?”

“Oh, Honey.” Ramirez rolled her eyes before taking another handful of popcorn from the bottom of the pot.

We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we’d lost it, until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”

I said I would never leave you.”

“Oye.” She scoffed.

And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I've got to do you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now...here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Jeezus Christ.” She muttered. She glanced over at him, catching his gaze. A faint blush rose on her cheeks, and she quickly fastened her eyes back on the screen.

Bucky smiled to himself.  As he’d said before, it wasn’t a bad bit of propaganda. He’d watched it, and generally enjoyed it when it had come out in theaters. He could certainly see how people would continue to like it even after the war ended. People loved a rogue, and Rick was undoubtedly that. Ramirez’s reactions, however, had added a whole new element to the viewing process. What she reacted to and why were surprising, compared to what he thought might draw a reaction from her.

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The music swelled La Marseilles blared, and “THE END” came up on the screen.

Ramirez stopped the film, the hut dropped into silence, and the dim lights of the hut flickered on, giving everything an orange tinge. She starred at the wall a moment, chewing the inside of her mouth. Bucky watched her expectantly. “So...?”

“Give me a minute,” She answered distantly. After several beats of silence, she turned to him, her tone all business. “I think all of this could be solved with Polyamory. Understanding that Ilsa was both in love with Lazlo and Rick, in different ways, would’ve solved the whole situation, with, of course, the exception of the Nazi problems. ”

“Yeah. They tend to be a little more difficult to deal with.”

“Historically, a bullet has been a pretty good solution.”

“Well, you’re not wrong.

Ramirez chuckled. “But yeah. Otherwise, it was a fairly compelling plot. I personally couldn’t wear Ilsa’s wardrobe, but I am seriously envious of it.” She paused, glancing over at him. “So I gotta ask, why you’d think it’d like it?”

“Oh.” Bucky should’ve expected this, and had an answer prepared. He had thought she’d like it this afternoon, but he really had just had a hunch, now he had to come up with something more substantial. “Because it’s about people making the best out of a shitty situation.” He blurted out.

“And that’s something you think I’d know all bout, huh?”

“I wasn’t going to say that. I just figured you’d appreciate it.”

“True. Although you have to admit, it was some good ole’ fashioned American anti-isolationist propaganda.”

“It is. Does that tarnish your opinion of it?”

“Not entirely. I’m not about to tar all WWII movies with the same brush...well not completely.  It was a good movie, but I’m not sure if it’s something that I’d watch repeatedly.” She paused, thinking a moment. “You’re obscenely old, right?”

“In theory, yes. What’s your point?”

“What does ‘here’s looking at you kid’ actually mean? Other than being terribly condescending for Rick to be calling a grown woman kid. I mean, like I get that, it’s a toast, but what does it mean, like really mean?”

“It means what it means.” Bucky shrugged.

“That’s not a real answer, and you know it, Barnes," Ramirez said, her face scrunched up in a playful frustration.

“You said it yourself, it’s a toast. A way to commend someone. What do you want me to say?” Bucky paused and cracked a small, almost maniacal smirk. “I’ll have to use it so you can see how it works, ‘contextually,'" He said as he made air quotes with his hand.

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

“Both?”

“Oh no, I can’t handle that level of cheesy nonsense in my life, James Barnes.” Ramirez shook her head, wagging her right pointer finger at him, a broad grin on her face.

“Can’t or won't?”

“Both.”

“I see.”

Ramirez giggled, “You’re a menace, Barnes.” She shook her head, freeing her hair from the last remains from the braid of the day, allowing it to fall freely over her shoulders and down her back. The ends of it landing near her waist.

“I do my best.”

“I’m sure.”

 There was a pause in the conversation as they both surveyed one another. Her cheeks were flushed, and she was smiling, her expression open and honest, her dark eyes warm and kind as she watched him, her pupils larger than usual because of the dim light. They looked darker than the night sky, and the lights of the hut reflected in them like stars. Her dark hair framed her face and ended near her waist so that it looked like a dark shawl in the dim light. Realizing he was staring, Bucky cleared his throat, glancing around. “So. What’s next on the list?”

“The Godfather.”

“Which you said you didn’t want to watch.”

“Yes, well, but given I just sat through number two, I should, for the sake of completion, watch number three," Ramirez faltered. “I mean if that’s okay. I mean, if you want to include me in your watching marathon.” She stammered, a blush only further flushing her cheeks.

“Well," Bucky said slowly in contemplation while his brain silently screamed 'She wants to watch another movie with me?'  "I guess we should decide what list we’re going to use. The 1998 or 2007 one?”

“Well, we’ve started the ‘98 list, technically.”

Technically, it doesn’t matter.”

“True.” She laughed, “Umm, the newer one would have more films I’m familiar with.”

“Should that be a bonus or a detractor.”

“Yanno, I don’t know, I watched like five movies on rotation for years, and old tape recorded telenovelas.”

“Which five movies.”

“Oh, no, I’m not outing myself like that.” Ramirez shook her head.

 Well, now he was even more curious, but Bucky knew better than to push his luck. “Okay. So. I propose a more holistic approach.”

“All right. I’m down for being more holistic. What’s the plan then, Barnes?”

“We switch off between lists, cross off what one list covers if we’ve watched.”

“Okay, sounds reasonable. We counting Citizen Kane done?”

“Yeah. I’m not going to put anyone through that again. If I’m feeling nostalgic, maybe, but I won’t inflict it upon you.”

“Well, don’t hurt yourself, Barnes.” She snorted. “So, our next one is The Godfather?”

“It would appear so.”

“So. When and where?” 

“Friday? My place?” Bucky suggested.

“That sounds good. You’ll have to give me co-ordinates unless you plan on extracting me from the jungle again.”

“Yeah, I’d rather not.”

 They tapped their wrists together, and the kimoyo bracelet buzzed, indicating the data exchange. “Awesome. So what time do you want me?” Ramirez commented as she pulled up the coordinates to his hut, and programmed them into her bracelet.

“7:30 pm works for me.”

“Okay, so it’s a date.” She stopped. “I mean, not a date. I mean-”

Was he making her flustered? It appeared so. And against his better judgment, he enjoyed watching her being more awkward than he felt constantly. Still, it felt a little mean to let her continue like this. “I’ll see you then.” He interrupted her mid stammer.

“Yeah. Is there anything you want me to bring?”

“If you want to make sopapillas again. Otherwise, I think I can handle popcorn.” 

“Understood.”

Then without further discussion, they both rose, brushed themselves off and collecting the dirty dishes headed back out into the night air.

“This was fun, Ramirez. Thank you for entertaining 1940s media.” He said as she took the popcorn pot from him.

“Thank you for entertaining my asinine questions.” She nodded appreciatively.

“They weren’t asinine.” Bucky protested. “Although Steve would’ve been able to answer them better than I did.”

“I thought you did just fine, James Barnes.” She chuckled and they both paused.

“I should head back. Thank you again, this was fun.”

“Thank you. Let me know when you make it back.”

“Why?”

“So, I know if I should send out the Wakandan National guard of what have you.” She smiled. “It’s a long walk back, it’ll help me sleep better to know you’ve made it and haven’t been eaten by panthers or anything.”

“I appreciate your concern, Ramirez. I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Sounds good.”

“Night.”

“Night.” She called after him as he walked away.

Bucky could sense her watching him as he walked down the path and out of sight. So she’d enjoyed the film. That had been a relief, on a personal and social level. The entirety of the evening had been less socially award than he’d expected. He’d enjoyed himself, but that seemed the going trend with him and Ramirez, or at least how it appeared.

Whistling the La Marseilles’s as he walked back under the clear Wakandan night sky, Bucky wondered what Steve was doing. Was he safe? Was he sleeping, or was he awake on first or even second watch? He certainly wasn’t watching movies from the “good ole days” in a remote corner of Africa. Bucky wondered what Steve, or Romanoff, or even Wilson would’ve said in response to what had just transpired. They’d probably give him shit, Steve especially would’ve given him shit, since he and the other commandos had entertained long rambling conversations about the movie during the war. But that was okay, Bucky decided, he wouldn’t mind being given a little shit.

He paused outside, overlooking the lake, taking in some of the warm evening air. He was going to be seeing Ramirez again, and soon. They were going to watch The Godfather. There would hopefully be more opportunities than just the one on Friday, but it was a start. It was a start, a chance, an opportunity for friendship. 

A broad smile passed over his face, it came fast and was gone just as quickly, but nevertheless, for a fraction of a moment, it had existed. “Well.” He chuckled to himself. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

           

Chapter Text

Because I’m Happy, Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof...’

Bucky heard the music long before he’d made it to the source, echoing out a fair distance up the path from Jelani’s workshop, and likely to the culprit of the noise. He’d been by yesterday for the usual feed delivery and their Tuesday lunch. Not like they hadn’t seen one another since last Tuesday. After Casablanca, they’d watched The Godfather on Friday and then started Raging Bull on Monday. They’d had to stop about halfway through, and reading the synopsis decided that highly acclaimed film or not, it wasn’t worth their time.

Then yesterday, during their usual lunch hour, they’d made plans to watch Gone With the Wind next, though they hadn’t pinned down a time. Now he’d been sent on an errand by Omondi, and Bucky had been unable to reach either Ramirez or Jelani, and he had a feeling he knew why.

He stopped as he came up the path to the workshop where Ramirez was working. Well, Bucky couldn’t exactly call what she was doing work. Instead, she was dancing, completely unaware of his presence. She hadn’t heard his approach, and so she danced and sang to herself, belting out the lyrics gleefully. It was a private, almost intimate moment as he watched as she was completely vulnerable and open, without any inhibitions. A moment, he was wrongfully witnessing and intruding upon.

“So, that’s what you kids call dancing nowadays?” Bucky said, loud enough to pierce through the din and announce his presence.

Ramirez jumped, startled. Wheeling around to face him, she turned off the music. “Jeezus Barnes, how long have you been standing there?” She gasped, her cheeks tinged pink, her chest heaving from the momentary fright.

“Long enough to realize how long I’ve been out of the world.” He answered vaguely as he took a few steps toward her. “Damn. I’m old.” He shook his head, chuckling to himself.

“Obscenely.” She agreed, walking from the workshop to where he was standing under the tree where they usually met for lunch on Tuesdays, eyeing him curiously.

“So I take it you go out to night clubs and do...that?” Bucky continued, just to see if her blush would spread to the rest of her face and to the tips of her ears like Steve.

Instead, she raised an eyebrow. “What are you implying, exactly?” Ramirez answered skeptically, though, with a heavy dose of good humor.

“Nothing.” He shrugged, as innocently as he could manage.

She snorted, shaking her head. “Well. Fair is fair, Barnes. How exactly did you “kids” dance back in the day?”

“We danced.”

“No, Shit. Let’s see it.”

“What? Right now?” He asked, glancing around.

“Not scared, are you?” A huge grin spread over her face.

“What? No. No. I happen to be missing some essential prerequisites.” He chuckled, shaking his head.

“Such as?” She led expectantly.

“An arm for one, and a partner who knows what they’re doing for two," Bucky answered, hoping that the hint would be enough for her to drop it.

“James Barnes, I’m hurt you think so little of me.”

“After that?” He motioned vaguely, “shouldn’t I?”

“Ouch!” She threw her hand against her chest, melodramatically. “You cut me deep, Barnes. You cut me real deep.”

“You’re funny," Bucky said dryly.

“But Seriously. Show me your moves, how hard could it be?”

Was that a dare? He was almost sure it was. He paused, licking his lips. Well, this had certainly taken an unexpected turn. God, how long had it been? 70-75 years or so. It would be fun, something from the old days...something familiar. He starred down, trying to think through the logistics. The left hand and arm did the hard work, the right arm was basically for balance.

I could reverse it. Use the right hand for everything, and she’ll just have to balance herself.

Then there was teaching her the steps. Sure he’d done it with Steve, a million years ago, but that had been when he’d had both arms, and he wouldn’t have to reverse engineer the entire thing twice over. It was one thing to mirror or flip which direction you were going, it was another thing to teach it. Bucky looked up at her, meeting her dark, expectant gaze. “Alright. Alright, fine. But if we’re going to do this, you’re going to have to step on my toes.”

 “I thought we wanted to avoid that,” She said with a pronounced twang.

“So I can show you the steps," Bucky replied shortly.

“No. What am I five?” Ramirez shook her head, removing her work gloves, she shoved them in her back pocket, brushing her hands off.

“I taught Becca how to dance that way. It works.”

“What? When she was five?”

“No. She was twelve.”

“Not better, Barnes.” She laughed.

He examined her expression. Was she laughing at him? At his discomfort? He could feel it coming off him in waves. He hadn’t done this in 75 years, to begin with, never mind with only one arm. Now here he was, and she was being like this. Was it just to watch him squirm? Did she know what she was doing? What she was asking?

“Forget it.” He said. “It was a stupid idea anyway.”

“Hey," Ramirez said, her tone more gentle now, she took a step toward him. “Just show me the steps. We can practice it a few times and go from there.”

“It’s not that...it’s just...” He couldn’t quite verbalize it, but it just felt dumb. Like he was trying to prove something to himself, to her, that he could still do what old Bucky could do.

“Hey.” She repeated, she reached out to put her hand on his shoulder, but stopped, letting it fall back down by her side. “This will be fun. Let it be fun.”

Bucky looked her up and down. She didn’t appear to be making fun of him, she looked like she was actually serious, that she did want him to teach her, that she was curious and did want to know how he danced back in the day.

“Okay.” He exhaled, “okay, okay.” He nodded, running his fingers through his hair. “So, the steps are step, step, rock step, then repeat. In any normal circumstance the man would lead to his left, your right but-”

“So to my left, then?”

“Yeah.” Bucky took another deep breath. “So yeah, let’s practice that.”

He took her left hand in his right, and she placed her right hand firmly on his left shoulder. The familiarity of the action would have been comforting if he hadn’t had to lead. “Okay, on my count," Bucky said, and Ramirez nodded. “Step,” he stepped the wrong way, and Ramirez let out a laugh as he stepped on her foot.

“Maybe I should step on your toes so you won’t step on mine.” His face flushed a deep scarlet. She cleared her throat, smoothing out her expression. “One bad start isn’t the end of the world. Let’s go again.”

He counted off again, and this time used the correct foot, and they slowly worked their way around the barn. Ramirez focused down on her feet, chanting along as he said the steps in time. “So, there you have it.” He said as they came to a stop. He let go of her hand, wiping his sweating palm on his pant leg.

You could’ve done this in your sleep back in the day, what’s wrong with you Barnes?

75 years and one twice amputated arm. The bitting little voice in the back of his head answered.

“Well, that was fun, can we try it with music? Something up-tempo?” Her voice brought him back

Bucky surveyed her. She looked so sincere, it would’ve been very nearly endearing had he not been completely on edge. “You have something in mind?” He asked, dryly.

“I’m more than a little partial to Glenn Miller’s In the Mood.” She replied.

“Miller?” He echoed skeptically. She was a beginner, at absolute best, and she wanted to attempt “In the Mood?” This was only going to end in absolute catastrophe.  

“Yeah. Why?”

Bucky could’ve suggested any number of slower songs to start with if it had been 70 years ago, but now his mind drew a blank. Damn. “That’s a bit fast, don’t you think?” Bucky raised an eyebrow, trying to save them the shame and embarrassment this was surely going to cause.

“You’re a good teacher.” She smiled warmly. “I trust you.”

Trust. Right. That. She trusted him, how could she? Why would she?

“What’ll it hurt?” She supplied uncertainly.

A lot. It could hurt a lot. He wanted to say, but he couldn’t, and so he didn’t. Instead, he cleared his throat, and exhaling sharply, he managed an, “Alright then, you ready?” He looked down at her. Her whole body language had changed. She looked focused, yes, but there was something about her that looked...he couldn’t quite put a name to it. Eager? Perhaps. Determined? Certainly. But something, almost mischievous, danced on her expression.

“Yes.”

“All right, In the Mood by Glenn Miller, it is,” He said, watching as she keyed it up on the Kimoyo bracelet, listening as the familiar tones began to filter through the speakers and fill the air around him.

At this, Ramirez extended her hand to him, which he took, and she placed her right hand on his shoulder again, just liked they’d practiced. He wished she wasn’t looking at him like that, all trust and enthusiasm and willing, like this wasn’t going to end anything other than embarrassment and disaster.

“I follow your lead.” She said a smile in the corner of her mouth.

Bucky nodded, and they began. Mercifully he started on the correct foot and counted as they moved, watching their feet to make sure he didn’t step on hers. Ramirez, it seemed, moved almost effortlessly, responding to his verbal and non-verbal cues. “You’re a quick-” He looked up and met her gaze. “You’ve done this before.” He said.

Her demure smile spread into a wide grin. “Once or twice.” She coughed politely, smoothing her expression.

Bucky nodded, wordlessly looking back down at his feet, watching as they moved. Once or twice. It felt like a gut punch.

She moved with confidence and ease, she’d clearly done this more than just a handful of times. So why hadn’t she told him? Why hadn’t she said something? Had she been waiting to see what he’d do, being down an arm? Was this some kind of private joke or prank? Had she felt sorry for him? Bucky didn’t know, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to find out. He couldn’t bear the thought of anyone, never mind someone like Ramirez pitying him.

I trust you. She’d said.

What could she possibly mean by that? There were no stakes in this. She knew what she was doing, she didn’t have to trust him for anything. Was she saying she trusted him not to hurt her? Trusted him to know how to lead? Trusted him to not step on her toes and make a complete ass of himself? Why would she tell him that she trusted him but not tell him that she knew how to swing dance?

His mind spun, and he could feel a sourness at the back of his throat.

The song ended, and they stopped, stepping backward away from one another, Bucky practically wrenching his hand away.

If she noticed anything, Ramirez didn’t say anything. Instead, she chuckled, muttering, “god its been forever since I’ve done that,” more to herself than to him.

Looking back up at her, Bucky watched for any hint of sarcasm. He found that there was none, not a trace or hint of it anywhere in her expression, her tone. She was being serious. Beyond just that, there was a sort of tenderness, a sort of softness to her voice that took him aback.

“When was the last time you danced?” He asked. It was the best compromise he could come up with, rather than asking, ‘why didn’t you tell me you could dance?’

“Oh. It’s been a while. Since before, Riley died. Of course, he was the reason that I learned. Sam and I took swing lessons with Riley for a 1940s themed military ball back before we were married.” She answered. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I remembered how to dance like that. Thanks for the refresher, Barnes.” Ramirez smiled.

Bucky nodded. Trying to find his way through the rush of emotions he was feeling. He felt oddly on edge like Ramirez was making fun of him somehow, but that wasn’t the case at all. She wouldn’t? Would she?

Why does it matter, Barnes? Why do you care?

Because he wanted Ramirez to be his friend. He realized. Because he didn’t want her to be one of those people that whispered behind his back as he went past. He wanted something normal in his life, and a friendship between him and Ramirez was about as normal as things might get for him, despite how abnormal their entire situation might be. He wanted that, but he also knew how impossible it all might be.

“Was that your first dance since 1945?” Ramirez asked her voice, pulling him out of his head.

“Yeah.” He nodded, bracing himself for whatever comment was to follow.

“You dance very well. You’re an excellent leader. When I was learning with Riley and Sam, neither of them could ever quite get the hang of leading.”

I’m an excellent leader, really? That had been nothing compared to when he’d been in his prime, before all of this. “You’re a good follower.” Bucky managed.

“Really?” Genuine surprise crossed her face. “I’ve always been told that I’m a horrible follower, from when my brother taught me to two-step when I was about six, all the way through proper dance lessons with Riley and Sam.”

“You did pretty well, following a guy with one arm.” He said, his voice dripping in self-deprecating sarcasm.

“Rather a guy with one arm, than one with two left feet.” She chuckled, not unkindly. “All things considered? I think we both did rather well.” Pausing, she cocked to the side as the first notes of Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing) started to play. “Oooh.” She cooed. “This is a good one.”

“You want to go again?” Bucky asked hesitantly, not sure if her reaction was an indication of willing.

Ramirez “Is that an offer James Barnes?”

He hesitated. Did he? Did he want to go again? Give it another shot, now that he knew Ramirez wasn’t a beginner, and that she might be able to handle going that fast. “Sure.” He extended his hand to her, which she took, smiling.

They were able to fall easily into rhythm. The song was, of course, as uptempo as you could get without it being ridiculous. Soon they were moving at some speed around the clearing under the tree, and Ramirez twirled and spun around him with ease. Bucky’s mind worked in double time, trying to remember as much as he could and compensate for his missing limb simultaneously. The music blared, and Ramirez laughed breathless as they moved at a nearly frantic pace for two people so clearly out of practice, only a step or two away from total calamity. Yet, Ramirez didn’t hesitate as he led her, totally trusting that he would catch her, that he wouldn’t lead her astray.

Then he heard it before he realized what was happening. “SHit!” Ramirez screeched, reaching out to try to correct she grabbed a wad of his scarf, and they were both topping toward the ground.

Bucky braced, turning his body so he wouldn’t land on top of her and rolled away as they both hit the ground. “Music off!” Ramirez groaned, and the music faded into silence.

“You alright?” Bucky asked, lifting himself up into a sitting position. “Ramirez?” He turned to her

She lay flat on her back with a slightly dazed expression on her face, her chest heaving. Then much to his surprise, she started to laugh uncontrollably. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed a deep-chested, nearly full-body laugh. Tears streamed down her face as she gasped for air between peals of laughter. Bucky sat frozen, unsure if he should call for help. “I-I-I’m o-ok-okay!” She gasped out, trying to catch her breath. She wiped at her face with the heels of her hands, her breath shuddering as the laughter subsided.

Her face was flushed as she sucked in air in large heaving gulps, but there was a massive grin on her face, her eyes closed, a relaxed near peaceful aura exuded from her. Bucky sat beside her, watching as she collected herself, lying in the dirt flat on her back in the middle of the yard. “I think that might be the closest to flying that I’m ever going to get," She commented breathlessly, but offered no further explanation. Then after a moment, Ramirez sat up. “Sorry about that.” She winced, rubbing the back of her head gingerly. “You okay there, Barnes?”

“Ye-yes?” He stammered, surprised by her inquiry. “Why?”

“I did pull you to the ground, and then burst into hysterics. That’s more than enough reason to ask you if you’re all right.” She said, brushing off her sleeves and picking grass from her clothes and hair. “So, you all right?”

“Yeah.” Bucky managed with a little bit more of a convincing tone. She was worried? About hurting or upsetting him? He couldn’t quite wrap his head around the idea, particularly since that even down an arm, he could probably still seriously injure, if not kill her. It wasn’t something that he liked thinking about, but it was the reality of the situation. Yet, here they were, Ramirez was asking if she had hurt him.

“So. Now that I’ve sidetracked you completely. Did you need something? Or were you just here to judge my dancing skills?”

“Oh. Right. Yeah.” Bucky said, remembering why he’d initially been sent. “Omondi needed to borrow a couple of tools from Jelani.”

“That’s right, Jelani did tell me that Omondi might be sending someone by. I didn’t know it was going to be you.” She commented, rising to her feet, doing her best to brush the dirt and grass off her clothing. “Let me get those for you.” She said, rushing back into the workshop.

“Omondi and his village are going to slaughter and roast some of the herd tonight, in honor of the king’s birthday. He asked me to pass along the invitation to you, and Jelani and his family to join him.” Bucky called, hoping that his voice was carrying over the sound of bumping and crashing noises coming from the workshop.

“Jelani and Sisay mentioned something about that before they left on their house call.” She answered, from somewhere out of his direct line of sight.

“So you’ll come?” He asked, wincing at the overeager hopefulness in his voice. “I mean if you want. You don’t have to if you have something else going on. Just thought I’d offer.”

“I was thinking about it. It’s been a while since I’ve had cabrito.” Ramirez mercifully interjected into his ramblings as she re-emerged from the shed, carrying a small tool bag in both hands. “Here you are.” She said, stopping a few feet in front of him and extending the pouch to him.

“Thanks.” He took it from her, adjusting the weight in his hand. Bucky stopped, watching Ramirez curiously as she ran her foot over the dirt as if looking for something.

“Ah, ha! There it is.” She looked up at him, an expression of triumph across her face. “The only major dip in this entire patch of ground, and I find it with my foot while going approximately 100 miles an hour.”

“Approximately?” Bucky echoed.

“Yeah, approximately,” She chuckled, shaking her head. “Again, thank you for humoring me. It’s been a long while since I’ve danced with anyone. Really, Barnes, I appreciate your patience and willing.”

Bucky nodded slowly, still feeling on edge, still feeling like he was being made the butt of some joke, but also feeling less so than he had before. “You’ll have to teach me some of your moves, sometime, Ramirez.”

“You can count on it.” She said her grin widening. “But I’ll let you get back to it. See you tonight?”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you then.” He nodded before making his way from the workshop.

Walking back down the path, he heard her put on music again. This time it was softer, quieter. He could just make out the tune, Stardust. It was the version of the song she’d played back on the ranch, and it was a sad, practically mournful little melody.

What have I done? He couldn’t help but wonder. Everything felt wrong. Something had happened. They’d been joking around, and then it hadn’t been a joke anymore. They’d been having a casual conversation, and then it hadn’t been. In an instant, something harmless had become harmful, something innocent had become volatile. They’d crossed a line, how and why, and in what way, Bucky wasn’t entirely sure. What had her comment about flying been about? Why did he feel there was somehow a connection between Stardust, her dead husband, and the comment. To him was the logical progression, but what did it all mean?

Then, on top of wondering what was going on with Ramirez, he felt angry for some reason, if not a bit hurt. Not at her, per se, but at the entire situation. Why can’t you act normal for once? His brain screamed at him. This wouldn’t have been a problem for him, way back when. He wouldn’t be micro-analyzing every conversation, wouldn’t be concerned with what she thought, wouldn’t have a reason to be concerned if this was 1942 if he was the Bucky from before all of this, all of this shit.

Well, it ’s not 1942, pal.

That was the reality, and that was the problem. He wasn’t the Bucky from before, from 1942, there was no way he could be, he knew this on an instinctive, nearly cellular level. Yet he wanted to be. Ramirez, for whatever reason, made him want to be the man he’d been before.

Bucky shook his head. It didn’t matter, it was a stupid and impossible thought anyway. The idea of normal, the idea of him being normal now or ever again. What exactly their little exchange meant, what any of it meant would have to be left until later, if she actually came to the party, and if he got a chance to talk with her. Until then, he was left with only his thoughts and consolation in the stardust of a song.

           

-

 

Magdalene Ignacia Ramirez! What have you done? Maggie could practically hear Riley laugh as he rushed to turn off the water main. They’d been doing some renovations on the kitchen, and one false move had busted one of the old pipes, quickly sending water everywhere and soaking her to the bone.

That’s what this felt like. That she’d made one false move, and now water was spouting from the line and drenching everything within reach. She hadn’t meant to, she really hadn’t, but in the pit of her stomach, she knew that her intentions didn’t matter.

She’d crossed a line, crossed an invisible boundary. It had been written all over the man’s face. She hadn’t really thought about what she was asking. It hadn’t occurred to her what dancing might mean to him, might represent. To be honest, Maggie really hadn’t thought anything of it. Barnes had made fun of her dancing, and so she had asked him to show her how he’d danced back in the day. Part of her had been trying to figure out how far she could push him, how flustered she could make him if she could rustle his feathers. Boy had she been successful. Probably a little too successful.

That was until she’d seen it on his face. She shouldn’t have pushed him, should’ve told him that she did know how to dance. But that hadn’t been the point, it hadn’t matted, or at least she’d thought it hadn’t mattered.

Then there had been the pure leaden resignation in his voice when he’d realized, and she’d seen the full brunt of her mistake written all over his face.

Damn.

Frankly, she felt like an ass. Mostly, She’d been an idiot. She should’ve just stopped pushing, stopped insisting, given him an out. But she hadn’t. And it had devolved into an impromptu “Let’s talk about how Your Disability Impacts Your Life” session.

You’re not his therapist, you’re not his girlfriend, you’re barely his friend. If EVEN.

But they’d made it work, right? It had been fine, they’d managed it, and he’d even offered to go again. Had he been fine? There had been a moment, a few moments where he could see him struggling, see him fighting with himself. It wasn’t like he’d had much time, reason, occasion, or opportunity to confront his disability. How much had he processed? How much could anyone really speak to the fact that he’d lost the same arm twice? That he’d lost the same arm twice in two very traumatic circumstances.

The second time might not have happened if you’d just told Steve.

And how exactly would that conversation have gone? Oh, by the way, your best friend, the man we’ve devoted hundreds, if not thousands of hours searching for, that guy, he killed Tony Stark’s parents.

Maggie shook her head. Didn’t matter. She couldn’t change it now, and she certainly couldn’t think like that.           

She had to focus on the present, on the now, because she couldn’t think about what had happened or what might happen without completely losing her head. Aside from that, she had other things to worry about. It was the king’s birthday, and while it wasn’t the entire nation showing up in Omondi’s village, it would be crowded, and the King and his family were expected to make an appearance. Meaning she, and very likely Barnes, had to be on their best behavior. Not that they wouldn’t be, of course, it was just an added stressor to an already stressful situation.

Maggie sighed as she picked up her comb and started working through her hair.

Since when had social interaction been considered a stressor for her? She’d always been a bit of a social butterfly and genuinely enjoyed being around people.

Since Juarez, when crowds meant danger, and people meant problems. Since you speak tourist level Wakandan. Since your only normal point of human contact is a man who spent the last 70 years being repeatedly frozen, brainwashed, and sent out periodically to murder and maim.

And now she’d probably ruined that too. She’d made him uncomfortable, more than normal, more than appropriate for their level of interpersonal connection.

She shook her head, twisting her hair into the green, blue, and black fabric that matched the fabric of the jumpsuit Teela had suggested she wear for the occasion. The color scheme was from the river tribe, and the way that Maggie understood it, the bolt of fabric had been a gift from the river tribe given to Teela, who had, in turn, commissioned a few pieces of clothing for every woman in the village. Teela had given it to her with a little note attached, Merry Christmas. Christmas wasn’t for a few more days, and of course, the Wakandans had their own celebrations that didn’t involve western, Christian traditions. However, the fact that Teela had been thoughtful enough to make mention of it, was incredibly touching, and Maggie knew that she had to wear the beautiful garment at least once before returning to her usual pants, button-down, and boots.

Securing her hair, she slipped on the large copper earring, before quickly surveying her reflection in the mirror. She looked exhausted, but the dark circles around her eyes had eased since she’d arrived in Wakanda. Certainly, her stress and anxiety levels had gone down, which was good. Still, tonight and all of its festivities were looking to be yet another stressful situation, thanks in no small part to her misstep earlier in the day.

“Hey, cowgirl! You ready!” Jelani’s voice called. “You coming?”

“Be right there!” She called back. Casting one last look in the mirror, and slipping on her kimoyo bracelet, she walked out where Tee, Jelani, Sisay, and a few others from the village were waiting, all on horseback. Fortunately, Stella was already saddled, and Maggie quickly mounted. Wordlessly, the group started off toward Omondi’s village at a gentle trot.

It was a quick journey on horseback, and Maggie focused on what she was doing, rather than what the afternoon had entailed. She tried not to think about the fact that she’d upset Barnes. She tried not to think about the fact that it was the first time she’d danced like that since Riley had passed away. Tried not to think about Stardust, or about how long it had been since he’d passed away, or think about the fact that when she’d danced with Barnes, she’d felt like she was flying. She tried not to think about the fact that she desperately wanted to dance again, and dance properly with the man who had ruined her life, and who despite everything was quickly becoming one of her friends. Yet the thoughts plagued her, try as she might, even as she knew in her heart of hearts that it didn’t matter what she wanted. If she’d misstepped, if she’d pushed him too hard, and too far, there wouldn’t be another time. That if she’d ruined this, it was all on her.

By the time they arrived, the sun was starting to get low, giving the landscape a purplish hue. Dismounting, they stabled their horses, and Teela took her by the hand, leading her through the party to meet a number of the local women.

For her part, Maggie struggled to keep up, but smiled and nodded, trying to remember names and modes of address. When they’d finally made it through the gauntlet, Teela handed her a drink, patting her amiably on the back. “You did well. Are you okay?”

“Of course.” Maggie smiled, taking a sip from the drink Teela had given her. It was a coconut and mango combination, with the faintest bit of alcohol. What exactly was in it, Maggie didn’t know but felt it was probably better not to task.

“Good.” She paused. “You have been a good and considerate guest in our village. But you need not consider yourself a guest, Magdalene.”

“Thank you. You have been a kind and gracious host, I am honored.” Maggie said.

“You should not feel so obligated to us.” Teela continued.

 “Obligated?” Maggie echoed.

“Yes. You feel you must socialize, must come to all of these events, must do everything you are invited to. You are allowed to say no. You are not obligated to us.” Teela explained.

“Oh.” She glanced down into her drink. Was it that obvious she was miserable at socializing at the moment? Was she being rude? Surely, Teela, or Jelani, or someone would’ve said something by now. “I do not want to appear ungracious, disrespectful, or disinterested in your country and it’s customs, practices, and traditions. Particularly since you have allowed me to live among you, rather than cloistered off in the city.”

“There is very little you could do to insult us. That you have put so much thought into not insulting us, is telling of your character, but you should not worry so, you both shouldn’t worry.” Teela replied, her gaze moving past Maggie to a commotion that was taking place behind her.

“Both?” Maggie stammered, turning to follow Teela’s line of sight. “Oh.”

The source of the noise was none other than James Barnes. A group of four kids had attached themselves to his arm, and he was swinging them as they giggled and laughed in sheer delight. Maggie couldn’t help but smile at the sight, as he laughed and smiled along with them, seemingly happy to facilitate them and whatever game it was he’d become a part of. It seemed a sort of universal truth was unfolding before her eyes, a group of children around a much larger, stronger adult, will always want to use them as a climbing frame.

Perhaps what was more striking was that he was laughing and smiling amicably and that to her amazement, she realized that she had never seen him do so before. Not like this, not to this degree. Sure, she’d managed, at least once or twice, to coax out a laugh or a smile while they were watching a movie, or talking during lunch, but this was something else. Was this what he had been like with his sisters? She could imagine, thinking about the photographs, a young Becca doing something similar to what she saw now. Bucky’s face all soft and warm lines, something unspeakably kind in his eyes and mouth. And Maggie realized, as she watched, that somehow this felt special like she was glimpsing something rare, something from the “before," untouched and untarnished by time, something incorruptible to outside influences.

He looked up, meeting her gaze, and Maggie looked away and down, trying to find anywhere else to look. Next to her, Teela cleated her throat, and Maggie starred down in her drink, trying to will away the blush that was rising on her face. She’d been caught staring, and even Teela had noticed.

“Is he looking at us?” Maggie muttered under her breath into her glass.

“Yes. He’s coming this way.”

Maggie sucked in more drink than she’d meant to, partially choking. Coughing, she looked back up to find that he was disentangling himself from the kids and was making his approach.

“Heyi, White Wolf, It is good to see you!’ Teela called as he walked toward them.

“Madame Teela.”

“Please, please, just Tee is fine.” She said, “Now if you both would excuse me, I need to see what my husband and child have gotten up to.” Patting Maggie on the back, she disappeared into the throngs of people.

Hesitantly, Maggie looked up and met Barnes’s inquisitive gaze. “Hi.” She offered breathlessly.

“Hi.” He looked her up and down uncertainly.

Maggie opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by a group of kids who came rushing past, laughing and joking, calling, “White Wolf!” As they passed.

“You’re popular," Maggie commented.

“Strange one-armed white guy, remember?” He said dryly.

“Law of nature Barnes, small children are constantly in search of something to climb onto or hang off of. You’re just a convenient target.”

“Because I’m the strange one-armed white guy.”

Maggie sighed, nodding, “Point taken.”

There was a long pause as they both surveyed one another. Barnes had changed from his usual trousers and button-down with the sleeve ripped off, and instead was wearing a more traditional looking set of Wakandan pants and robe, with matching scarf, rather than his usual red and blue color scheme he was in darker browns and blues, a thick leather belt synching up the fabric, the scarf, as usual, hiding his pronounced lack of an arm. Someone, or perhaps he’d managed it with one hand, had put his hair up into a half up half down bun, and he’d even trimmed and groomed his beard.

They made eye contact, and Maggie smiled. “You look nice.”

“Thanks, so do you.”

“Thanks.”

There was yet again another pause, as they tried to find what to say next.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come," Barnes admitted hesitantly after a moment. “After this afternoon, I mean.”

Maggie glanced up at him. “If anyone has a right to be avoiding anyone after this afternoon, it would be you.”

He frowned, furrowing his brow.

“I want to apologize, Barnes, I realized after you left that I had been a little too forceful, and tremendously inconsiderate.”

Barnes nodded thoughtfully, taking a moment to chose his words before he spoke. “You can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do, Ramirez.”

But it was awkward, it was uncomfortable, it did push you out of your comfort zone in a way I had no right to ask, demand, or force. She wanted to say it, but she didn’t. I’m not making fun of or making light of you or your disability. But this wasn’t the right time, place, or moment for that. Not right now, in front of the Wakandans, when this was supposed to be a celebration, and they could be interrupted at any moment.

“Well, I wouldn’t want force to come into the equation in any context. I’ll do my best to be more mindful in the future.” She managed, as light-heartedly as she could manage.

He nodded again. “I’m glad you came.” He continued after a moment.

“I’m glad you came too. These things are always easier to bear when you’re not alone.”

“Yeah.” He agreed softly.

You wanna get out of here? She almost asked. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to ask. After all, it was clear they both didn’t want to be there. They could slip away and watch a movie at his place. They were still trying to pin down when they were going to watch Gone With The Wind. Why not tonight? “So when did you want to watch our next film?” She inquired slowly.

“Gone with the Wind? You’re really serious about watching all of those old movies with me?”

“Well. Yeah. I mean, if you’ll have me.” She stammered.

“Why?” He asked.

Oh boy. She hadn’t expected him to ask. Why would he? Maggie took a deep breath, trying to find a way to not make this about her dead husband. “I’ve never seen a lot of these,” She began slowly.

“I meant, why do you want to watch them with me?”

“Oh.” She’d asked herself the same question it felt like a thousand times over, and it always came down to, I’m lonely, what the hell else am I going to do? But it didn’t feel like that, not when they were actually sitting there watching the films. They’d only watched Casablanca and Godfather together (and part of Raging Bull, if you counted that before she’d rage quit over the pedophilia), but she’d been able to ask him questions during Casablanca. Then after watching The Godfather, he’d asked her about the differences between the book and the movie. They’d been able to relax around one another without the pressure of a performance.   But she couldn’t say that, not without it being weird, or weirder than their entire relationship already was.

“Well.” She continued. “Believe it or not, Barnes, but I think I’m starting to enjoy your company.”

He snorted, shaking his head, before he looked her over, his expression changing. “You’re serious.”

I know, I’m as surprised as you are. Maggie would’ve said, but that felt mean spirited. Instead, she nodded with a faint smile, “So far as I can tell.” She said, trying to convey as much as possible that she was being sincere. And of course, she was being sincere, but she couldn’t help but note Barnes’s skepticism.

“Oh," Barnes replied slowly.

“I wouldn’t spend time with you if I thought you were a total asshole.”

“Just a partial one?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Only when you want to be.”

He chuckled nodding. Opening his mouth to say something, he was cut off by a loud commotion, and they both turned to see none other than King T’Challa, Nakia, Princess Shuri, and the Queen Mother entering the village, flanked by some of the Doras, including the General, Okoye.

Maggie watched as they moved through the crowds of people, wishing the King a happy birthday.   “Barnes, what’s the Wakandan convention on gift-giving for the King’s Birthday?” She managed under her breath.

“You know, I hadn’t really thought about that until you just asked.”

“I mean, what would we even begin to give a King?”

“Beats me.” He shrugged.

“Well, it’s not too late to sneak—”

“Barnes, Magdalene, I’m honored you came.” The king said as he approached.

Barnes shot her a look that she couldn’t quite decipher, “The honor is ours.” He said before she could manage to find her words.

“Happy Birthday, your highness.” Maggie managed. “I’m afraid we didn’t think to bring anything in honor of your name day.”

At this, the king shook his head. “No, no. While gift-giving is customary during a name day celebration, as King, I have the special privilege of bestowing gifts.”

“That really isn’t necessary,” they blurted out at once.

The slightest hint of a smile, upturned at the corner of his mouth, and he nodded, regally. “That may be so, but never the less, it is my right.” He said, removing two Kimoyo beads from his pocket. “It is my understanding that two of your holidays are forthcoming, and that likewise, it is customary to receive messages of goodwill from friends and family, and return messages in kind.” He extended the first one to Barnes. It was slowly flashing a blue color rather than it’s usual white, and he took is uncertainly, holding it in his hand, inspecting it carefully. The king then turned to her, giving her the second one, which flashed a purple color. “Messages for you, from Captain Rogers, and Samuel Wilson. You may record your own message and leave your beads with Omondi and Jelani. They will get them to the appropriate people who will deliver your messages.”

“Thank you, your highness.” Maggie stammered, placing the bead on her bracelet.

“Thank you.” Barnes chorused.

“I will let you enjoy your evening. Thank you again for coming.” He nodded before returning to the main party.

Maggie could feel Barnes exhale a long breath beside her. “You were saying.” He commented dryly after a beat of silence.

She cracked a smile, rolling her eyes. “I spoke too soon, or not soon enough. Although I don’t think I can decide which is worse.”

“Well. Regardless, we still got V-mail. That’s something.”

 Maggie nodded, “That is something.” She paused, chewing on the corner of her mouth. “I’m glad they were able to get a message through, I’ve been wondering how they’re doing.”

“Yeah. Me too.” He agreed.

They faded off into silence, watching the activities of the party as they unfolded. Then the princess Shuri called her name. “Magdalene! Magdalene, come here, I must teach you to dance!”

All eyes of the party and it felt the whole of Wakanda, turned to her, and Maggie could feel as the blush rose on her cheeks. “If you’d excuse me.” She managed before throwing back the rest of her drink.

“of course.” Barnes nodded, a curious and playful expression on his face, his hands still balled around the Kimoyo bracelet.

“Wish me luck,” Maggie murmured, before walking through the crowd and toward where the Princess was beckoning her.

 

-

 

Bucky watched her walk away and into the crowd, where a group of women had started to gather around where the princess would be teaching Ramirez the steps to the dance.

Although he couldn’t make out what was being said, Bucky could see that Ramirez was listening intently, her face bent in extreme focus and concentration.

It was a traditional Wakandan dance for women. What it’s significance was Bucky. Couldn’t entirely figure out, but as the music started, all of the women, including The Princess, Queen Mother, and Nakia, lined up and started to dance and sing along. Ramirez did her best to keep[ up, laughing, and smiling as she fumbled a step, her face bright in the light of the massive bonfire that had been built up in the center of the village. The light danced on her face, illuminating her eyes, and smile.

Was that how she’d looked while they were dancing. He couldn’t recall, and they’d been close, closer than bucky was to her now. Only then, he’d been focused on his own steps, worried, practically frantic, afraid to make a misstep, afraid to make an ass out himself, or incur Ramirez’s laughter, her scorn.

Only she’d been the one to apologize. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Had his discomfort been that obvious? Had he made her feel guilty? She hadn’t done anything wrong, not really, it had all been in his head rather than something she’d personally done or said. As he’d told her, there wasn’t anything that she could do to force him into anything he didn’t want to do. All that pressure, all that expectation, that had been internal.

She’d said she didn’t want force to enter the equation, and she’d apologized. Should he apologize for his behavior? He didn’t know. Steve might know, Wilson would certainly know how to respond to Ramirez.

Jeezus, asking Steve advice for how to talk to a woman. It was almost more than he could bear.         

Bucky shook his head, glancing down at the Kimoyo bead he was rolling between his fingers. A message from Steve. It would be good to hear his voice again, hear what they were up to, know if they were safe. He’d, of course, send a message back to Steve. That, however, was more troubling.

What was he going to say? What could he say? He’d even forgotten that it was nearly Hanukkah. Time, it seemed, moved differently in Wakanda, moving fast and yet not at all. He would report, of course, that he was fine. That’s always how V-mail started. It didn’t matter if it was coming or going, you always started with reassurance. You were fine, the family was fine, the neighbors, postman, milkman, however, they were all in good health. After that, there’d be the local gossip, who’d gotten married, who was carrying on with the girl down the street, before talking about the weather or something to fill the space. Then you’d wish them well before you signed off.

They didn’t necessarily all go like that, but that was the general format. Becca had been a master at writing interesting letters. Of course, the letters had all been in her handwriting, but Bucky could always tell which parts were hers and which parts she’d directly copied from their folks.

Fortunately, Becca had never had to find ways to couch bad news with a positive spin. Other guys in the 107th hadn’t been so lucky. Deaths or severe illness in the family were the most common, one had received a Dear John. That had been difficult to watch.

So what was Bucky going to say? What was there to say? What was he willing to say when it would likely be listened to by the Wakandans and then overhead by Steve’s team. What could he say that would approximate the truth without worrying Steve, but also not sound totally made up.

He paused at the sound of laughter and focused back on what was happening. Ramirez was laughing and clutching her side, even as she continued to dance, badly, by comparison to the others dancing around. Still, she was grinning and laughing and apparently enjoying herself.

What would she say to Wilson? Would she report that she’d happy and well adjusted? Would she tell him about their movie nights, or that they’d danced under the trees and she’d tripped and dragged him to the ground? Would she tell Wilson that she was lonely and unhappy? That she was bored and didn’t have any friends? Bucky didn’t know, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know how he figured into her world.

“Heyi White boy!” The Princess Shuri called, and he turned to see her waving him over. “Come and let me teach you how to dance.”

Ramirez stood at his side, looking mortified. Catching his eye, she mouthed, ‘Sorry!’

Bucky hesitated, momentarily frozen in indecision. This should be fun, let it be fun. He could hear her say.

Letting the Kimoyo bead slide onto the bracelet, he nodded, walking through the parting crowd to where they were standing.

“Well, Ramirez, you did say you’d show me some of your moves.” He commented dryly as he joined them.

“She did?” The Princess raised an eyebrow.

“She did," Bucky confirmed, glancing between the Princess and Ramirez, who was blushing, her ears tinged with pink. “So. Who’s going to show me how it’s done?”

He’d figure out what message to record for Steve later. He’d figure out how to cope with everything he’d been dealing with later, but for right now, he was going to let tonight, let right now be fun.

Chapter Text

There’ll be snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree.

Maggie could hear Sam’s voice, small and wavering as he sang into the recording. Whether he was singing softly because he didn’t want to give away their position, or he didn’t want the others to hear him, Maggie didn’t know, because all she could hear was him, and she’d been doing her best to get it out of her head for the better part of a week now. It had been two days since Christmas, and just about a week since the King had given her the Kimoyo bead with Sam’s recording on it.

It, of course, had been a relief to hear Sam’s voice. It had felt a little bit like old times, listening to his voice in the cool and dark of her room after a long day’s work. Perhaps a little too much like old times.

Maggie hadn’t sent a recording back. She had hoped to be able to get it together long enough to record something for Sam. She’d tried, to her credit, she’d tried several times, but had always gotten weepy halfway through. That was something she’d sworn back in the day when Sam and Riley were on their tour of duty that she would never do. They had to stay focused on doing their jobs and coming home safely. She wouldn’t make that more difficult by making them worry about her because she was having a hard time keeping it together.

She felt that way then, and she felt that way now. I wonder if Barnes has sent Steve anything.

She hadn’t thought to ask when they’d sat down to watch the first part of Gone With the Wind. They hadn’t really had much to say before during or after the film. They’d both been exhausted and were both trying to find their way back to somewhat more normal ground after what had happened last week. Barnes hadn’t brought it up, but there was that level of uncertainty that was present in their interactions, a level of caution. She was simply trying to give Barnes his space to work through what he needed to work through, and doing her best not to overstep her boundaries.

Maggie wanted to talk to Sam, and with the dancing, and the audio recording, and with everything that was happening, she really wanted to talk with Riley. He would’ve had something funny and witty and honest to say about all of this. He would’ve kissed her forehead and made her laugh, and then they would’ve talked through the options, the choices, the path forward. This time of year the three of them would be snuggled up on the couch, drinking eggnog, with a roaring fire in the fireplace, talking, laughing, listening to Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, The Roches, and any number of other adaptation of Christmas music they’d managed to find for her record player. She missed it, she missed them, and it was all because Sam had decided to sing that song because he’d reminded her of what they had, and what they were now missing. Over the past few years, it had been something that she’d done her best to avoid, ignore, or otherwise keep from thinking about, and now she had to face it again. She missed her home, and she missed the people who’d made it her home.

Maggie blinked, leaning heavily against the workbench. Wiping her face with the back of her sleeve, she looked around. The heat was rising from the ground in waves, making it difficult to breathe, her vision blurring and making her head ache.

I’m dehydrated.

She knew the signs. She stooped down to her water skin and took a long draw letting the water run down her chin and soak into her shirt. She then poured a generous amount over her head, exhaling with a satisfied sigh.

“Go home, Cowgirl.”

She looked up to see Jelani standing in the shade a short distance away. “Pardon?” Maggie asked, breathlessly.

“Go home. It’s too hot to do anything. All this can wait until tomorrow.” He said, adjusting his grip on his staff.

“Honestly. I’m from Texas. This heat really isn’t all that bad.” She paused as she felt dizzy, the world around her spinning slightly.

Jelani gave her a look but mercifully said nothing.

 “What time is feed delivery today? I’ll go home afterward.” She reasoned.

“That’s what I wanted to tell you, The White Wolf isn’t coming. Omondi gave him the day off on account of the heat. Omondi will be by later for dinner and will deliver the feed once the heat breaks. You have no reason to stay out in it as well. Go somewhere cool and in the shade, perhaps take the White Wolf with you to the falls Sisay and I were telling you about..”

“Oh," Maggie replied, trying to ignore the audible disappointment that practically dripped from the exclamation. She hadn’t heard anything. Why hadn’t he sent her a message? Maybe this was his way of telling her that he didn't want to talk with her or deal with her today.

You’re being stupid. It was the kindness, gentlest thing that she could manage. You’ve ruined everything, you moron, was the next nicest thing, followed by, you fucking idiot, you always do this, you always mess everything up, this is what you do, this is why you’re always the only one left standing.

Jelani cleared his throat, and Maggie raised her eyes to match his gaze. “Go home. Get some rest, try to stay out of this heat. It does things to your head if you’re not careful.”

She nodded. “Thank you. I’ll be here tomorrow earlier to try to beat the heat of the afternoon.”

At this, Jelani laughed, “I assure you cowgirl, the whole of Wakanda will not crumble if you decide to take a few days for yourself. You’ve worked non-stop since you’ve been here and been an avid and keen learner.”

Maggie had to swallow back the palpable anxiety that swelled in her chest at the very thought.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, all the earlier, cowgirl," Jelani said simply, before walking away.

She nodded, watching as he went.

Jelani was right, Maggie knew he was right, she needed a break, she had worked non-stop since she’d arrived, it would only be right for her to take some time off to take care of herself. She wouldn’t, of course. She’d had two and a half years to take time to get her head on straight, and she hadn’t. What would make her time in Wakanda any different?

As she cleaned up her work station, her mind wandered back to the message Sam had left for her. She needed to respond, needed to find a way to make it through what she wanted to say.

This isn’t about you, and about how you’re feeling, this is about making sure that Sam knows that you’re safe. Whether your happy, healthy, and well adjusted is subjective anyway.

Her palms itched, the pressure was there, in the back of her mind, building, searching for any way out, for any way to relieve that constant and ever-present urge. It wouldn’t take much, for her to take back control, to manage the raging pain and anger and hurt that she’d damned up behind fragile walls. Just a little bit a siphon, a little bit of a controlled release of pressure, to relieve what was building up just behind her eyes and lurking in the dark corners of her mind.

Maggie arrived back at her single dwelling, and immediately went for the container of ice in the small food storage unit, and pressed an ice cube against her right forearm with her left hand, focusing on the chilling sensation that went up her arm and through her spine. With her free hand, she clicked on the Kimoyo bead, and Sam’s voice filled the small room.

Hey Mags,’ Sam began, he sounded tired, but like he was trying to put on a happy face for her. ‘It’s been a while, hope you’re doing well. Steve, and Wanda, and Nat say hello. We all hope you’ve settled into life there. The War Dogs who made contact with us said that you’re working for a horse breeder. That’s good, I’m glad you’re working with horses again, I know you were always happiest when you got to be around animals. Even when things were bad, and hard, having your horses, having your routine seemed to help make it not so bad.’

Sam paused, and Maggie could hear him thinking about what he was going to say next.

‘I hope you’re not alone, though. That you’ve found people to spend time with. Hell, even if it’s Barnes, it would be better than you being alone. It’s not good for you to be alone.’ He faltered, breaking off again. ‘I keep thinking about what happened, over the summer, when you went off the grid, when you were alone, in Juarez. Doing what I’m doing now, I can’t imagine doing it alone. I have my team, and they have my back. But thinking about you, thinking about how you did all of that alone, how you’ve been alone...since...well...for a long time now. I don’t want you to be alone, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t find you sooner.’ There was another pause. ‘I wish I could be there with you to celebrate Christmas. I know that was always our thing when we were together. That was always Riley’s favorite holiday, and we’d always make a huge thing of it. We haven’t done that since he’s been gone, and not going to lie, I’ve missed it, I think about it, I still think about it, even all these years later.’ Sam sighed, ‘Damn, sorry. I didn’t mean to take my message that direction, this was supposed to be a fun message. A letter home.’ Maggie could practically hear him shake his head before he took a deep breath. ‘I'll be home for Christmas, You can plan on me, Please have snow and mistletoe, And presents on the tree.’ He sang.

Tears started streaming down her face, and she let the ice cube fall from her grasp as she reached up to wipe them away.

'I'll be home for Christmas, If only in my dreams.’ It was only then that Sam’s voice cracked. He paused, clearing his throat before he continued. ‘I love you Mags, I’m thinking about you, I hope you’re doing well, and I hope to hear from you soon. Merry Christmas.’

The recording ended, and Maggie wiped her face before her left hand went instinctively to the chain around her neck.

Maggie froze. It was gone, it wasn’t there.

She jumped to her feet, her heart pounding in her ears, her eyes scanning the floor of her small dwelling.

It was gone. The chain, the rings, all of it gone. She frantically rifled through her blankets and bedroll, and the small chest she used to store all of the clothes she’d been given. Through the cloth sack she used to store her dirty clothes, through her make-shift ofrenda, where she’d set up her grandmother’s statue, and her grandfather’s rosary.

Fuck, Fuck, Fuck. She swore silently as she came up empty. Panic turned anger, which turned into despair, and Maggie sunk down on the floor, pulling her knees to her chest. Squeezing her eyes and taking deep breaths, she tried to ground herself and slow her panicking mind.

Think. Think slowly, rationally calmly. The logical, rational, calm side of her brain cooed. While the other, louder, more frantic side of her simply screamed Find it! Find it! Find it!

In response, her brain completely shut down, and she sat numbly for a good five minutes, allowing panic and heart wash over. She’d lost it. She’d lost one of her last tangible connections to Riley. How could she have been so stupid?

Becca had said one day it wouldn’t hurt so much and that she’d be able to take off the bands and not feel naked. But it wasn’t now, it wasn’t like this. Putting Riley aside was supposed to be a choice, was supposed to be part of the process, it wasn’t supposed to be ripped away from her like everything else.

Maggie took a couple of deep breaths, before opening her eyes again and glancing around the small, now incredibly messy, hut. It’s not lost, just misplaced. One thing at a time.

Rising on shaking legs, she took a mental stock. I’m dehydrated, I’m hot, I’m dirty, and I’m panicked. Which one of these things can I fix first?

Chugging a half-gallon of water, Maggie, peeled off her dirty work clothes, washing her arms, neck, and chest with a wet towel, before pulling on a gauzy white dress. It was floor-length, lightweight, and fitted through the chest and waist with a flowing skirt and sleeves that buttoned at the wrists and neck. She’d bought it on one of her trips to the market, and it flowed freely around her legs, giving her full range of motion, as well as a nice bit of air circulation. She looked like a short, fat, Mexican Florence Welch, but it would work to keep her cool.

She turned to her hair, unwrapping it from its usual braid, she combed it, and collecting her favorite head wrap, started to twist the long lengths of fabric and hair together. It was as headscarf she’d picked out when she’d bought the dress, and the blue, red, and gold pattern of the fabric was woven with vibranium, which in combination with a bunch of highly scientific things Maggie didn’t understand, worked to keep her internal temperature regulated. Then grabbing the matching scarf, knotted to of its corners, and pulled it over her head and across her body.

By the time she was finished, Maggie had a plan. She didn’t need to sit in her hut and mope. She’d retrace her steps and find Riley’s wedding band, first to the shop, then around the shop and barn, before she walked toward Omondi’s village, and then Barnes’s hut.

After that, who knew. She might even go to the falls, and she might even take Barnes with her. But first, one thing at a time.

           

-

 

It was hot. Really hot. Oppressively hot, and Bucky was doing his best not to move in a vain attempt  to keep cool. He couldn’t remember a time he’d ever been this hot. He’d been kept in Siberia. He’d fought in the European front during the war. He was from Brooklyn. It got hot, but never lung crushing, skin melting hot like this.

Omondi had given him the day off due to the heat, which meant that he wasn’t making his usual rounds for feed delivery. Instead, he was lying flat on his back, in his hut, while he silently debated himself about if he should reach out to Ramirez and let her know that he wasn’t going to be by today.

Would she really care? He couldn’t help but wonder.

Bucky exhaled, blowing some hair out of his face as he stared up at the thatch ceiling listening to people as they walked by, laughing and talking with one another, completely unaware that he was listening.

He’d done his best to occupy his time, read, write, maybe even watch a movie or something, but it was too hot. So instead, he was stuck in his head and without anywhere to go, his thoughts were only compounding, building upon one another.

At the moment, he was trying not to think about if he should call Ramirez and let her know that he wasn’t going to be by for their usual Tuesday lunch. Mostly, he was thinking about Steve’s audio message. Hanukkah had started a few days ago, and much like the two years he’d been on the run, Bucky didn’t feel like celebrating. Wasn’t sure if he should celebrate. After all, who was there to celebrate with? Steve had sounded in good spirits, though. Wanda Maximoff was with them now, and she was going to celebrate the holiday with Steve. Natasha was, of course, Jewish, but whether or not Steve knew that, Bucky didn’t know. Regardless, Steve had Sam and had his team around him to celebrate. That was good, it was good that Steve had people. Steve needed people.

Bucky was still in search of normalcy, and thus far, it felt like trying to bring other people into the mix just hadn’t had good results.

Steve had asked Bucky how Ramirez was getting along. If they’d seen anything of one another, She’s a good person Buck, and I think you two would get along. He’d mentioned in passing between two of his comments.

If only Steve knew.

Bucky would tell Steve, of course, that he and Ramirez were having their weekly lunches and watching films together. He’d tell Steve that they were perfectly amiable to one another. Bucky wouldn’t, however, tell him he was still thinking about what had happened almost a week ago. He felt embarrassed, ashamed almost. Why? He wasn’t entirely sure, but he knew that he felt that, strongly, acutely almost. Of course, he and Ramirez had spent time together since then, she’d come over to watch the first part of Gone With the Wind, they’d talked and had a decent time, but it felt like she was keeping her distance. He felt delicate, and he hated that he felt that way.

He paused, sitting up on his elbow, looked around, and paused. Something had caught his eye, something that didn’t belong there. Slowly, he rose, his eyes scanning the floor as he searched, and then, crouching down, scooped it up in his hands.

“Oh, fuck.” He breathed as he examined the single gold band. It was a man’s ring, a wedding ring. He’d seen it before, on a chain, around Ramirez’s neck. He scanned the floor for a moment, before locating the chain and the other, much smaller wedding band.

How long had that been on his floor? Since Ramirez had come over for Gone with the Wind? Had she not noticed? How had he not noticed?

I have to get these back to her.

Bucky charged from his hut, and blinking out into the sunshine, heading practically blind for the village. He’d been walking a good ten minutes when he stopped, a single thought piercing through his racing mind. You could’ve just called her, you moron. He silently scolded himself.

He looked around, blinking as the heat rose off the ground in warbling waves, all of a sudden feeling light-headed. You really should’ve called her. Bucky exhaled sharply, trying to stop everything from spinning.

“Barnes?” He looked up to see a figure approaching.

He squinted, trying to make out who it was. “Ramirez?”

“Yeah, it’s me," Ramirez answered, stopping several feet away. “What are you doing out here?” She asked, glancing him up and down.

Wordlessly, he extended his hand to her, and opened his enclosed fist, revealing the broken chain and two wedding bands. She gasped, covering her mouth with her hands as she crossed the distance between them, her eyes wide and glassy, ready to cry. “Where did you find them?” She asked tears in her voice.

“They were on the floor, they must’ve dropped while we were cleaning up after watching the first half of Gone With the Wind. I didn’t see them until just now.” He explained, watching as she slowly reached out and collected them from his open palm, taking them delicately in both hands.

“Thank you, Barnes, Oh my god, thank you so much.” Ramirez breathed, as she stowed them away in her bags. “I can’t thank you enough.” She looked up at him. “You could’ve called, though.”

“Yeah.” He nodded, “I realized that after I started walking over to your place.”

Ramirez glanced him up and down before speaking again. “Jelani told me Omondi gave you the day off.”

“Yeah, he did.”

“Jelani also told me that I should take you with me to the swimming hold Sisay told me about.”

“He did?”

Ramirez nodded. “You can join me if you’d like. You’re likely less adapted to this climate than I am, and cooling off sounds like a good idea all around.”

“It is hot,” Bucky agreed. Every inch of him was soaked with sweat. He was nearly sure that the nub of the winter soldier prosthesis was about ten degrees hotter than the air around them and sweating as well. He looked Ramirez over. She looked the perfect picture of ease, watching him with her steady, familiar gaze. She didn’t even look like she was breaking a sweat. “I wouldn’t want to intrude.” Bucky paused a moment, feeling light-headed. It was hotter than he’d realized, and he blinked, watching the dark spots dance in front of his eyes.

“You all right?” There was concern tinged her voice, her eyes surveying him carefully.

“Yeah. Fine. It’s just a little warmer than I thought.”

“Here.” She said, rummaging through her bag, she removed a massive water skin and extended it to him.

“I’m fine, really. It’s not too far back to the village.” He protested.

“Please drink some water, Barnes. You’re only out here because of me, I don’t want to be responsible for explaining why you passed out and hit your head on a rock.”      

He relented, nodding, and took the water skin from her. Whether it was the heat, his mood, or just the fact that Ramirez looked far too serious, a small, wry smile twisted in the corner of his mouth, and he lifted the water skin toward her, “Here’s looking at you kid.” He said before taking a long draw

At that, Ramirez chuckled, shaking her head. “And to think I thought you’d forgotten about that.”

“Is it as cheesy as you thought?” He inquired, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, before extending the water skin back to her.

“Keep it for now, and yes, that was cheesier than I could’ve possibly imagined.” She laughed.

“Well, I’ll have to find more opportunities to work it into conversation.”

“You’re a menace, Barnes.” She rolled her eyes. “But that whole issue aside, you wouldn’t be intruding if you came with me to the falls. I’d like you to come with me.”

Really? He wanted to ask. She wanted to spend time with him? He couldn’t believe it. Sure, movies and lunches were one thing, but this was an excursion outside of the village, isolated, and alone. She was trusting him. He wasn’t sure if it was earned, or warranted, but what was Bucky’s alternative? Go back to the village, sit alone in his hut, drink water, and stare at the ceiling? It paled in comparison to the notion that he could spend the afternoon with a beautiful woman. “How far is it?” He asked.

“About a half-mile, if you’re up for it. You look like you could use a cool down.” She said.

“That’s not too bad.” He shrugged, trying to be as casual as possible. “And yeah. Getting somewhere cool, and with lots of water sounds good right about now.”

“Good. I’ve marked a way-point, to avoid any confusion or getting lost.” She said proudly, adjusting the straps of her bag.

“Lead the way then, Ramirez.”

“Can do Barnes. Keep drinking water.” She said, opening up the map on the kimoyo bracelet they started walking.

They walked in amicable silence, Bucky drinking from the water skin and watching as Ramirez navigated. It was strange to see her not in her work clothes. He’d seen it a few times now, but it was always jarring. She fit in a very specific mental slot, and that slot included pants, a plaid shirt, and boots, or some variation therein. Everything about her today was soft lines, from the flowing skirts to the way her hair was wrapped, to even her expression. Light and soft, and drawing his eye. Was it the heat, or had he honestly just never noticed how beautiful she was before?

Her warm brown skin was smooth and flawless. Her eyes dark and inquisitive, her jaw, while tensed was angular and defined, was softer and more rounded now. Her thick brows were knit together, her lips pursed as she surveyed the map. Stopping, she looked down at the map and then around, making eye contact with him.

“What?” She asked, almost bashfully as she caught his gaze.

“Avoid getting lost, huh?” He asked, raising an eyebrow and managing a small reserved smile as he took another draw from the water skin.

Ramirez rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “Not...as...such...” She hesitated.

“May I see?” Bucky said as he walked up beside her.

“Sure, be my guest," Ramirez replied, extending her right hand to him, and he looked the map over.

They were standing more or less where the waypoint had been set, but obviously not where they wanted to be. “I think you’ve gotten us lost, Ramirez.” He chuckled.

“Apparently so.” She sighed, rolling her eyes. “I swear my sense of direction isn’t normally this shitty.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, his attention had been grabbed by something in the background, something nearly out of earshot. “We’re close.” He said, glancing over at her. “Trust me.”

Ramirez nodded and followed behind him in silence. It didn’t take long until they came to a clearing, and a waterfall rose up before them, feeding the crystal clear pool below. “Wow," Ramirez commented softly, soaking in their surroundings. “This is beautiful.”

Bucky nodded in agreement. “Yeah.”

“Thanks for fixing my directional miscalculation.”

“You weren’t far off.” He shrugged, watching as she set down her bag, and pulled off her cross-body scarf and boots.

“We might have been wandering a while.” She replied as she gathered up her long skirts and tied them around her waist, exposing her calves and a good portion of her thigh. Her warm brown skin looked smooth and soft, her calves were well defined and muscular. You’re starring, stop starring. You’ve seen a woman’s legs before. “Are you going into the water, boots and all, James Barnes?”

Her voice called, and he blinked, realizing he’d been staring. “What?” He stammered.

“I asked if you’re going into the water, boots and all," Ramirez repeated, picking her way over to the water’s edge.

“Oh.” You’re going in, going in the water. He realized, watching her wade into the crystal clear water. “I was thinking I was going to refill the water skin and try to continue to re-hydrate.” He answered lamely. He knew how to swim, he just wasn’t sure if he could manage it with one arm, he’d never tried. Aside from that, going into the water with or without clothes was likely to draw comment of some kind from Ramirez. He’d rather not deal with that right now.

“That makes total sense.” She answered, slowly picking her way through the pool the water about knee-deep now. “Plus someone needs to fish me out if I slip and—” The words had hardly left her mouth before she slipped, falling into the water with a loud splash. She reappeared with a chorus of spluttering and swearing.

“You alright?” Bucky walked to the water’s edge, watching her rise unsteadily to her feet, her legs shaking like a newborn goat.

“I’m fine. I’m fine. That one’s on m-” She slipped again.

Bucky chuckled, kicking off his boots, started into the water after her. “You really don’t have-” Ramirez started but was cut off as she slipped again. By the time he made it to her, she’d gotten back up and was trying to steady herself.

“Here.” He extended his hand to her.

“Thanks.” She said breathlessly, taking it in hers.

“No prob-”

Then, against all the odds, he lost his balance and slipped, pulling them both into the water. They both came up gasping and pushing the hair out of his face, he looked at her, both of them breathing heavily. Was she going to be angry?

“Oops?”

Then, something broke in him, like a damn, and he threw his head back, and he started to laugh. Ramirez stared a moment, stunned before his laughing became infections, and she joined in.

Bucky wasn’t entirely sure why he was laughing, or for that matter, why Ramirez found it all that funny, but they laughed and laughed and laughed until their sides ached. Eventually, they hauled themselves to the shore and lay flat on the hot rocks starring at the clear blue sky. Chests heaving, they laughed weakly, trying to gasp enough air to say something.

How long had it been since he’d laughed like that? Had he, in fact, ever laughed this hard, this long, with someone? Yes. He’d been twelve, and Steve had said something not all that funny that had made them laugh and laugh and laugh until his mother had come outside to see what the noise was all about. He glanced over at Ramirez who had tears streaming down her face she was laughing so hard or was it water? Hard to tell. “You okay there, Barnes?” She managed after a moment.

“Yeah. you?”

“So far as I can tell.” She shook her head, standing up she starting ringing out her skirt, walking to where she’d set down her bag and scarf.

“You done swimming?” He asked.

“No.” Ramirez shook her head, her fingers working on the soaking knot keeping the skirts up. “I want to let my dress dry, so I have something to wear on the way back.” She answered as the knot came loose and the skirts fell in a wet sheet around her legs. Unbuttoning the cuffs and collar of the dress, she started pulling the soaked gauzy fabric away from her skin and...

“Oh...” Bucky stammered. “Do you want?... I can...” He turned away, averting his eyes.

“I’m wearing shorts and a sports bra, Barnes. I’m hardly indecent.” Bucky could hear the smile in her voice. “But, I appreciate your decency. You can turn around if you like.” She said, and he turned to see her laying the dress out to dry on the grass.

Ramirez rose and turned to face him, and his eyes were drawn to the scars running up and down her thighs in straight, neat little white lines. Some of the scars were nearly faded completely. He frowned. He’d never seen scars like that. “You can ask if you’d like.” He looked up and met her direct gaze. He’d been starring again. “I don’t mind,” She said gently.

“What happened?” His mind went directly to Hydra. They’d tortured her...but he didn’t remember them doing anything like that. It wasn’t their calling card. The scar on her arm and hand. That was Hydra. They crushed and mutilated limbs to get what they wanted out of their victims. No, the scars on her legs were something else.

“Friendly fire.” She supplied.

“Huh?” He furrowed his brow, meeting her gaze.

“They’re razor blade cuts," Ramirez explained gently. “I have a history of self-harm. I started in high school and finally got help midway through college. My last bad relapse was after Riley died. But it’s something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember.” Ramirez said as she walked past him back toward the water.

Bucky turned, watching her walk a little way into the water and sit down. She didn’t look upset or even angry. Just thoughtful. “I’m sorry.” He said after a moment.

“It doesn’t bother me, Barnes. It used to, but nowadays, it’s just part of the scenery.” She shrugged.

He reached up to his left shoulder, his fingers running along where the scars had formed long ragged paths from the continued abuse. The skin retained the memory of what he’d done or rather what he’d tried to do to himself. He’d tried at every opportunity to dig that thing out of him, even if it meant doing it with his own hand. Hydra had restrained him, sedated him, and physically punished him for trying to dig that thing out, but he’d persisted, desperate, frantic to undo what they’d done to him. Even now that metal shoulder plate was still in his body, and every now and again, he’d get the urge to itch to scratch and pick at it, to claw and get the rest of it out. The last bit of hydra. Well...one of the last bits anyway. Was that self-harm? It had felt like self-preservation at the time, a way to control what was happening, a way to fight back, a way to remain grounded at least momentarily in who he was. Was that the she same urge she’d felt every time she’d put a razor blade to her skin? Afraid second to second what she was doing but unable to stop herself. Bucky shook his head. How did she do it? Be so open and honest? So cavalier about something that had caused her tremendous pain? How could she still be so gentle and kind when she had endured so much?                 

Well, fair was fair. Bucky thought. She’d shown him hers, now he’d show her his. He paused. “Do you mind if I take off my shirt?” 

“What you afraid you’re going to blind me with your white skin, James Barnes?” She turned to face him, a broad smile across her face. She stopped, eyes surveying him a moment, her expression going serious. “Oh," Ramirez said slowly. “No. Your lack of limb isn’t going to put me off. Do whatever is going to be most comfortable for you.”

Bucky nodded and removing the scarf, he deposited it on the ground next to her dress, before slowly working the buttons of his shirt. Ramirez turned back the way she’d been facing to give him a semblance of privacy.

She knows. She knows what you did to yourself, she knows what they did to you. His mind screamed at him.

He peeled the damp shirt away from his clammy skin and set it out to dry as well.

She’s a former Veteran therapist, she’s seen the files, why are you so nervous about this. The old Bucky would never have been nervous about this, being shirtless in the presence of another human being. Then again, the old Bucky wasn’t scarred and mutilated and missing a limb. The old Bucky hadn’t had mind and body ripped apart and stitched back together more times than he could remember. The Bucky from before, the real Bucky was whole. He was not. He was vulnerable, exposed, with nothing to hide behind.

He glanced at the metal shoulder plate and the fabric cap covering what remained of the metal limb and exhaled slowly. Might as well get this over with. Bucky paused, walking up beside where she was sitting and looked down. Her self harm scars, white and bright against her otherwise dark smooth skin.

Just a part of the scenery. That’s what she’d said.

How long had it taken her to get to that place? How long would it take him to become as comfortable in his own skin as she appeared to be in hers?

He sunk down beside her on her left side, and she turned her head to him, her eyes glancing him over for no more than half a second. “You really are very white, you know that.”

“So you keep reminding me.”

Ramirez chuckled, but said nothing further, turning her attention back to the waterfall.

Was that what he wanted? No commentary about his missing limb, no wincing or look of pity, no unasked questions, no half asked, or nearly innocent questions. Perhaps, he realized, it was almost worse, not knowing, not getting a reaction out of her, not hearing what she thought of it, thought of him than knowing would be.

Bucky glanced over at her. She had both her arms behind her and was leaning against them, her head was back, her eyes closed, just basking in the warm sun, the cool water on her legs and stomach. Ramirez looked radiant, her skin glowed in the sun, her dark hair was still neatly twisted on the top of her head with the scarf, and her expression soft and content.

Bucky found that he wanted to reach over and touch her just to make sure he wasn’t imagining all of this. She couldn’t be real, she couldn’t actually be here with him in this beautiful place. It had to be a dream. There was no way this woman would ever have given him the time of day back in the world, back when he was a whole functioning human being with good looks and charm. So why on earth was she so content to spend her afternoon with the sad husk of what remained of James Barnes?

But she is.

That was true. If she was horrified or repulsed by him, wouldn’t she have expressed it by now? She was no stranger to what he was, everything that he was. Would she have really sought out his presence if she thought he was revolting or repugnant?

No. She wouldn’t have.

Bucky exhaled slowly, trying to slow his racing pulse and release some of the tension that had built up.

“That’s a good sound," Ramirez commented.

“Pardon?”

“You’re relaxing. It’s good.” She said, opening her eyes, she blinked bleary eye-ed as her eyes adjusted to the bright light. She looked over at him. “Personally, I could use a full body massage and a frozen margarita, but this certainly does in a pinch.”

“Yeah. It’s nice to get out of the heat for a while.” He agreed,

“Nice to get out of the village, away from life a little bit,” She said, splashing herself with a bit of water.

Bucky nodded, again saying nothing. Small talk was not his forte.

“You know what Barnes,” She said, her eyes scanning the waterfall and rock face “I’m going to jump off that ledge.”

“You what?” He asked, taken aback.

“That ledge, up there,” She pointed.

Bucky followed her line of sight to a ledge about fifty feet up. “Why?” He looked over at her.

“I dunno.” She shrugged. “There was a big jumping rock at the lake where my parents used to take my brother and me over the summer. They never would let me jump off it. I guess living out childhood dreams.”

Bucky glanced between her and the ledge. It wasn’t a huge drop. There were no rocks or debris to avoid, it was safe enough, but as someone who’d spent considerable time jumping and falling from great heights over the last 70 years, he couldn’t quite see the appeal. “Uh. Huh.” He nodded skeptically.

“I’m not asking you to go with, Barnes. Actually, you should stay down here in case I crack my head open on a rock,” Ramirez said, wading toward the shore.

“And you’re trusting the one-armed guy to fish you out?” Bucky asked skeptically.

“Well. As I have no other readily available alternative, I’ll just have to trust you.” She reached the shore, turned, and smiled. “I don’t plan on cracking my head open if that makes you feel any better.”

“Slightly.” He shrugged, watching her pick her way toward the rock face. “Although I don’t think that ordeal back there is inspiring any confidence,” Bucky added.

“I don’t think slippery muddy rocks have any bearing on my ability to climb and jump off a ledge, James Barnes.” She laughed, starting her ascent upward. “But, I take your point.” She paused, hauling herself on top of the ledge. Bucky winced but kept a careful eye on her as she scrabbled atop the flat surface. “You can’t tell me that you and Steve and your sisters didn’t do anything ill-advised when you were younger.” She said her voice echoing over the water as she approached the edge of the ledge, she glanced down a moment.

“We did. I’d argue Steve never stopped, but I can’t say that I’d recommend a lot of what we did as kids to anyone today.”

“I’m not sure if one could argue you and Steve turned out okay, but I can certainly vouch for Becca.” She laughed, but there was something pitchy about it, something uncertain.

He frowned as he watched her approach and then back away from the ledge. Something’s wrong. “You okay?”

“Yeah. About that.” Her voice was small and shaky. She laughed weakly, approaching the ledge, peering down before backing away again.

Holy cow, she’s afraid of heights. He almost laughed. Almost. It was a bit of a relief to know that the woman who had harbored the Winter Soldier in her barn, performed light medical and mechanical operations in a grimy outbuilding, survived a Hydra raid on her house and subsequent torture, and had spent two and half years in some state of hiding or on the run was afraid of something. Or rather, in Bucky’s mind, possessed at least an iota of what could remotely be called a survival instinct. Your average human wasn’t built to survive large drops and so tended to be adverse to them. So far as he was aware, she wasn’t medically modified or super-powered, so her survival instinct was doing what it was supposed to in the face of danger, telling her not to jump. He looked up and saw that she was watching him, doing her best to keep the fear out of her eyes and failing.

“Yeah. Yeah. I know.” Ramirez said in what Bucky was sure she thought was a light-hearted and sarcastic voice. Instead, it came out leaden with terror.

Of all things to be afraid of, heights. She should be terrified of me, on principle, but no heights are what does it. There were worse things, but in context, it was the slightest bit amusing.

The wind blew, and she shivered. “The longer you stand up there, the worse it’s going to get Ramirez,” He called. “You could always climb down.”

“And give you the satisfaction?” She asked.

Bucky paused, uncertain of how to respond. She doesn’t really care what I think of her, does she? He pondered a moment. Not that he for a second would think less of her for something like this, it was just strange to think that she cared what he thought. Ramirez was willful, self-possessed, and confident, she shouldn’t care what he thought. And so she was afraid of heights, so what? In point of fact, so was he. The only difference between the two of them was that he’d had all self-preservation instincts manually switched off for 70 years by a bunch of sadistic mother fuckers and the medical modifications to ensure he didn’t die if he did take a massive fall.

“I wouldn’t put much stock in what I think. I’m a 100-year-old cyborg with a history of very bad decision making.” He said dryly.

“But?”

“But,” he continued, “if you take a running start, you won’t have time to overthink. You’ll be over the edge before you can stop yourself. When you get airborne, just make sure you cross your ankles and cross your arms across your chest. It’ll make sure you don’t hurt yourself on accident,” He said. It was the best he could do in the given circumstances.

“Uh, huh.” Ramirez nodded.

“And remember you enlisted me to drag you out if you do hit your head. So you got nothing to worry about."

“Thanks for that, Barnes.” She said with an audible twang, backing toward the cliff wall and out of his line of sight.

“Hey!” Bucky called, a smile twisting at the corner of his mouth.

“Don’t you say it!” Ramirez warned.

“Here’s look-”

He was cut short by what could best be described as a battle cry as Ramirez sprinted from the ledge. The cry transformed into a scream which was drowned out by a splash and then silence. Bucky held his breath, watching the spot where she’d disappeared into the water, silently counting, waiting for her to come up.

Ramirez breached the surface coughing and gasping for air. “You alright?” He asked, swimming out to where she was treading water. She didn’t answer. “Ramirez, you gotta answer me,” Bucky said adamantly as he swam over to her. She nodded coughing.

He surveyed her a moment before determining that other than being out of breath, she appeared to be okay. “Come on, let’s get you on dry land.”

Ramirez nodded again, and they both made for the shoreline. “Well. You survived your first cliff dive. How do you feel?” Bucky asked once they both could wade toward the shore.

She chuckled weakly, “Uhhh. Terrible. I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. It didn’t look so high up from down here. I don’t think I’ll be making a habit of that.”

“Sounds like a smart move all around.”

“I’d agree.” She was shaking from head to toe, her arms wrapped around her torso. She had been scared. More scared than he’d certainly ever seen her. Bucky gently guided her to where they’d set up, and they both sat down in the grass. Ramirez lay flat on her back, chest heaving, and squeezed her eyes shut.

“You did good, Ramirez,” He commented after a moment.

“Thanks, Barnes.”

Bucky said nothing but watched her in silence, giving her the time and space she needed to come down from her adrenaline rush. After a moment, she rolled onto her stomach and dragged her bag toward her. Removing a mango and a knife, she rolled back over and sat up. “Would you like half," Ramirez asked, as she started cutting into the large fruit.

“Sure.” He shrugged.

She worked slowly and purposefully as she cut the mango in half, handing him the larger of the two pieces. “Thanks.” Bucky murmured as he took it from her, their hands momentarily brushing.

“No problem.” She replied.

Ramirez took a big bite of hers, juice running down her chin, and she looked up just in time to catch his gaze. “What?” She laughed with her mouth full, a blush rising on her cheeks.

“Nothin.” He shook his head, biting into the mango.

Ramirez nodded, taking another bite. She chewed thoughtfully and swallowed. “You know what I miss from home?”

“What’s that?” Bucky asked.

“A good cantaloupe,” She answered.

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. Of all the things he thought she might say Cantaloupe hadn’t made the list, any list, ever. “Cantaloupe?”

“Yeah. A good one mind you. Pecos cantaloupes are the best cantaloupes in the world. Ramirez said wistfully, and Bucky new that she was going somewhere far away, crossing time and space beyond his reach. “They’re the sweetest, juiciest, most delicious cantaloupes in the world. It’s hotter, and dryer than hell out in Pecos, which I guess is why the cantaloupes from there taste so good. You know you have a good one when the rind is coated in the dry powdery dirt when you get it from the supermarket. My mom would always cut one up and stick it in the cooler with watermelon when we’d go to the lake that way when we got out of the water, we could have a cold snack before lunch.” She smiled, taking another bite of the mango.

“Sounds nice.” He commented.

“Mhhh hmmm,” Ramirez mumbled, taking another bite of the mango. She shook her head and swallowed. “The mango just isn’t doing it for me at the moment.” She settled back into the grass, still holding the mango. “What about you, Barnes? Is there something you miss from home?”

Bucky paused. What could he possibly say that wouldn’t turn this into a really dark conversation? I miss having my arm. I miss having my sanity. I miss sleeping through the night without waking up in cold sweats. I miss not being an international war criminal. No, she’d asked an innocent question, he wouldn’t muddy the waters with something so...morose. “Uhhh. I miss my mother’s Latkes.” He blurted out.

It was true. He’d spend the last few days thinking about celebrations, about how his family had always gathered together for every holiday and had a meal together. It was still difficult to think about his family, think about the fact he hadn’t been able to say goodbye. He hadn’t really thought about what he missed from home. He’d thought a lot about what he’d lost, about the things that he could never get back, but never about home itself and what made it so special. It was more a feeling more of a sensation than an actual experience. Something intangible just on the tip of his tongue. “I miss how simple everything felt. Steve and I dancing in our socks to the radio, helping my sisters with their homework, helping Becca with her hair. Watching my mother cook during the holidays and being shooed from the kitchen when I tried to sneak a bite before it was ready.” He shook his head. “It was a long time ago.”

“That sounds lovely.” Ramirez paused, a contemplative, somber expression crossed her face.

“What?”

“Latkes. I haven’t had them in a few years.” She sighed wistfully.

Since Becca died. She didn’t say it, but Bucky knew the tone. “Well, we’ll have to remedy that sometime before Hanukkah ends.” He commented slowly, wincing the metal of the shoulder plate was heating up, he could feel the skin around it burning.

“You okay?” Ramirez asked, sitting up, concern riddling her expression.

“Oh. Just hot metal on skin.” Bucky shrugged.

“That doesn’t look or sound comfortable.” She said, setting down the mango she reached up to her hair and started untying the headscarf holding her hair in place.

“It’s...fine...what are you doing?” He asked, watching as her hair cascaded from the scarf, falling in dark tendrils down her back. She untwisted the fabric, flattening it to its real length and width.

“Will you trust me?” Ramirez inquiring, rising to her feet, she stood over him expectantly.

He looked her up and down skeptically. “Why?”

“Oh. Right. So.” She continued. “This scarf is woven with special cooling technology. Don’t ask me how it works because I can’t explain it, but basically, it detects your body temperature with the outside temperature and keeps you cool in the heat.” She explained, “May I?” Ramirez motioned to his left shoulder with her chin.

Bucky looked between her and the scarf and nodded hesitantly, more curious to see where she was going with this, than apprehensive about what she might do.

“So I’m going to wrap this around your left shoulder, and the prosthesis, and then tie it around your body, and knot it against your right rib cage.” She explained as she knelt down beside him. “It’ll cool down your core and should relieve some of the burning.”

“Okay.” He managed.

Ramirez hesitated. “I’m not going to do this unless I have your consent.”

Why? Why do you care so much? He couldn’t help but wonder. Instead, he nodded, “You have my consent.”

“Okay. let me know if anything I do hurts you.” She said.

Just like back in the outbuilding, just like on Last Chance, she was worried about hurting him, even when they both knew that he was more likely the one to hurt her than vice versa.

Ramirez moved quickly and purposefully, draping the scarf over his left shoulder and the fabric cap of the Winter Soldier prosthesis. The wet fabric was cool against his skin and immediately eased the burning sensation creeping into his shoulder and neck. She pulled the two ends of the scarf down to his left rib cage, where the plate was inset and pressed the cloth against the seam of metal and skin. He winced, and she withdrew her hands. “I’m sorry.” Ramirez rushed.

“I should’ve warned you that part is more sensitive.” He replied, looking up into her concerned expression. “There very little you could do to hurt me that hasn’t been done before.”

“I know, but It doesn’t mean that you should grin and bear the discomfort.” She murmured as she continued her work.

Grin and bear the discomfort. That was what he was doing, wasn’t it? It’s what he’d done for two years while on the run, it’s what he’d done in the immediate aftermath of the prosthesis being blown off. It’s what he did, in some small part, when ignoring the stares and whispers as he walked past. But he didn’t have to, at least according to Ramirez. He shouldn’t have to bear the discomfort. Yet somehow, he didn’t necessarily see that there was any alternative.     

“I’m going to tie the scarf across your body, and knot it against your right rib cage. If I may?”

“Sure.”

Ramirez resumed her work adjusting the fabric she leaned into him, her hair falling over her shoulders in waves, their loose ends brushing against his skin. “Excuse me.” She said, moving around him, she pulled the scarf taut and tied the ends together, knotting them firmly. “Is that too tight? Can you breathe just fine?” Ramirez asked.

“Yeah. It’s good.” Bucky nodded, exhaling a deep breath.

“You might want to put your shirt back on Lobo Blanco, whettos don’t normally fare very well in the sun.” She smiled, her hands trailing over his shoulders before she sat back down on the grass beside him, and resumed eating her mango.

“Thank you.” He said after a moment. He could feel his core body temperature, dropping to a more tolerable level.

“No problem," Ramirez said, as she took another bite of her mango.

Bucky closed his eyes and inhaled a long breath. He could smell the dampness of the scarf, taste and smell the sweetness of the mango, feel the warmth of the sun against his bare skin, hear the sound of the water crashing over the falls. This was about as close to paradise as he would ever come, and he was closer to paradise than he deserved, but it wasn’t home. It wasn’t his home. His home was far away in a time and space that no longer existed.

Ramirez rolled onto her back and covering her face with her hands. There were dirt and bits of grass on her stomach, her legs bent, her feet flat on the ground, toes gripping into the damp soil and grass. She looked so vulnerable and open. Fearless. Utterly and completely fearless. How was she handling all of this? It had been Christmas a few days ago, how was she handling being alone for the holidays? Being separated from friends and family, and anything remotely familiar? If it was bothering her, she certainly wasn’t letting on.

Bucky paused, thinking about the absolute relief that had crossed her expression when he’d produced the wedding bands. Perhaps she wasn’t handling all of this as well as he thought. Maybe she was having as hard of a time as he was with all of this.

Bucky watched her a moment longer, lounging in the grass as he mustered the courage to ask what he was getting ready to say. “You responded to Wilson’s audio message yet?”

She stiffened, glancing up at him. “No. You responded to Steve’s yet?”

“No.” He shook his head.

“Oh, thank god.” She breathed.

Bucky frowned, that wasn’t necessarily the reaction he’d expected from her. “What?”

“Oh. I thought I was the only one. I can’t for the life of me think of what I want to say.” She explained quickly.

“You too, huh?” He had to keep from smiling as relief washed over him. He wasn’t the only one.

“I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to say since last week, and it’s eating me up from the inside out," Ramirez admitted, biting the corner of her mouth, she shook her head. “It was a lot easier when I was stateside and had the ranch to report about.”

“You and Wilson exchanged letters?”

“When he and Riley were on tour, yeah. We did audio letters too. I have them somewhere.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what Sam wants to hear. I don’t want to lie, but then again, I don’t want to worry him either.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

Ramirez paused, adjusting, she rolled over to look at him. “What a pair we are, Bucky Barnes.” She paused a moment before speaking again. “Did you get a message from Natasha?”

The question surprised him. It wasn’t that he was surprised Ramirez would be concerned about Natasha, it was that he was surprised she would mention anything about it to him. “No.” He shook his head. “Steve said that she’d found them, but didn’t provide much else in the way of detail.”

“Yeah. Sam too. He said that she sent her regards.” Ramirez sighed, rolling onto her back and throwing her arm over her face again. “I miss her.”

Yeah, me too. He didn’t say it. He didn’t really need to say it. Ramirez knew, perhaps not all, but enough about him and about his time with Hydra to know about him and Natasha. What surprised him was that Ramirez didn’t push, she never pushed, about anything, more or less. If he’d been in her place, he’d have thousands of questions, even after all the research she’d done. Yet, if she did, she kept them to herself. Bucky wasn’t quite sure what to think about that.

Bucky paused, pulled momentarily from his thoughts at the sound of Ramirez humming, just barely audible over the roar of the waterfall. “There’ll be snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree.” He recognized the tune.

“A fan of Bing Crosby?” Bucky inquired, breaking the silence.

“Yeah. Kinda? Sam sang some of it for the recording he sent me, and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. Why? You a fan?”

“I saw him once when he was touring with the USO.”

At this, Ramirez sat back up, starring. “What?”

“What do you mean, what? He toured with the USO, and Steve had connections being a hardened veteran of show business himself. Or did Steve fail to mention that?”

“Yeah, no. It never came up. The bastard.” Ramirez said, sounding more than a little scandalized.

At this, Bucky laughed. “I guess he also didn’t tell you that he personally plowed over Glenn Miller in an attempt to avoid his handler before a show in Alabama.”

“Yeah, that would also be a no.”

“So all you did for two years was sit around and talk about me then, huh?” Bucky raised an eyebrow.

“Well, not to inflate your ego anymore than this is going to, but yes, that sounds about right.”

“Sounds pretty boring.”

“Not as boring as you might think.” She chuckled, flopping back down into the grass.

“Really?”

“Really, James Barnes," Ramirez said. “Though I have to admit, your sister was far more forthcoming with the funny stories than Steve was.”

“Oh no.”

“My particular favorite was about that time she found you naked out on the fire escape at six in the morning when you nearly made the little old lady across the way faint from the shock. What did Becca say her name was...?”

“Mrs. McGregor, Fanny McGregor. God...jeezus.” Bucky buried his face in his hand. “Why?”

“Because I was having a bad day, and your sister was trying to make me laugh.”

“Did it work?”

“Yes. Becca was a phenomenal storyteller.” Ramirez chuckled. “It’s not so bad, Barnes. I was once arrested for public indecency and animal endangerment.”

“I saw that in your record, what was it for?”

“Riding one of my friend’s horse around town bareback...while completely naked...” She paused, and to Bucky’s satisfaction went several shades of scarlet. “Well, almost completely, I was wearing a silver sequined cowgirl hat.”

“That sounds like a story, you tell my sister that one?”

“No. Heavens, no. I was never quite drunk enough to tell her that one.” Her voice went up nearly an entire octave until it was nearly manic. “I was in college, it was on a dare, and I was absolutely and completely trashed.”

“I bet.”

Ramirez rolled her eyes, though very clearly still embarrassed, shook her head. She sighed, “I miss your sister. Those first six months after...” She faded off, chewing on the inside of her mouth before continuing. “Those first few months after Last Chance, it was hard, losing everyone, losing my support network, Bill, Mike, Suzanne, but your sister gave me a sense of normalcy, a sense of direction.” Ramirez sighed, looking up at him. “She really was a terrific human being, and I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to see one another again before she passed away.”

Bucky didn’t know what to say, what he could say. They fell back into silence, as they sat in the shade, eating their mangos, and listening to the sounds of the waterfall and jungle around them.

Then, he heard it, the sound of Ramirez’s kimoyo bracelet buzzing. Sitting up, she groaned irritably. “Barnes, you really should start wearing your kimoyo bracelet more.”

“Huh? Why’s that?”

“The Princess Shuri was trying to get ahold of you for something or another, then contacted Omondi, who went to find that you weren’t there, and so now they’re buzzing me.”

“Damn,” He grumbled, shaking his head. “What are they saying?’

“Just asking if you’re with me.” She answered with a sigh as she started typing in the message, paused, glancing over at him. “Do you want me to lie or tell the truth?”

“Lie?” He raised an eyebrow.

“I dunno, if you wanna avoid them or whatever. I’d be willing to cover.” A mischievous expression passed momentarily over her face.

“No. Tell them you’re with me, and that I’ll be back in the village in thirty minutes.” Bucky replied with a heavy sigh as he turned to collect his shirt and scarf, which were both drying beside him.

“We should both probably head back.” She said as she sent the message.

“I didn’t mean to cut your outing short," Bucky said, a twinge of guilt twisting in the pit of his stomach.

“Not at all. I came, I saw, I swam, I chilled, and now I think I’m ready to go back and face reality for a little bit.” She shrugged, pulling the dress over her head, and buttoning the collar and cuffs.

“If you’re sure.” He said, tugging on his boots.

“I am.” She nodded.

“Do you want your scarf back?” He asked, watching as she twisted her hair into a tidy little bun on the top of her head.

“You can keep it, I think, in this heat, you need it more than I do.” She said.

“You don’t have to do that, I don’t want to take your stuff,” He stammered.

Ramirez paused, her right hand fiddling with the clasp of the bracelet he’d bought her for her birthday, “Consider it a Hanukkah present, and a thank you gift for finding and returning the wedding bands to me.”

Bucky paused, surveying her. A Hanukkah present? A thank you gift? He would’ve protested, but he got the nagging sensation that it would be a losing battle. Nodding in admitted defeat, he pulled on his shirt, fastening the buttons, before wrapping his scarf back around him.

“You ready then?” Ramirez asked, crouched by the water’s edge and refilling the water skin.

“Yeah.” He nodded, picking up her bag, he slung it over his shoulder.

Ramirez look at him, opened her mouth to say something but thought better of it as she re-sealed the water skin. “Shall we? Bucky Barnes? Handler of the bags, and protector of women?” She asked, with a wry smile.

He rolled his eyes but nodded, trying to ignore the way that his stomach fluttered at the sound of her saying his name, and they started walking back the way they’d come earlier in the afternoon.

I have to find a way to get her back, I can’t just let her give me her scarf. He pondered as they walked. “So I was thinking,” He began slowly.

“That’s a dangerous past time,” Ramirez chuckled.

“Right?” Bucky agreed but pressed forward anyway. “Since it is still Hanukkah for the next few days, I was wondering if you’d like to come over to my place for dinner tonight, maybe finish up Gone with the Wind. I was thinking about trying to recreate my mother’s Latke recipe. Since you’ve had them more recently than I have, you’d have a keener sense of if my recipe is accurate than I would.”

Ramirez stopped and looked back at him, ”That’s really kind of you, Barnes, but I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Oh. Okay.” He nodded, hoping that she couldn’t see the look of disappointment he was sure was written across his face.

“I have some things I need to take care of. That message back to Sam for one. Can we do tomorrow?” She said as they started walking again.

“Well, I don’t exactly have any pressing appointments," Bucky said, glancing around. “So yeah, tomorrow sounds good.”

“Awesome, what time?”

“How does seven sound?”

“Perfect.” Ramirez smiled as they entered the clearing where they’d met earlier in the afternoon. “I believe this is where we part ways, Bucky Barnes. My bag, please.”

“Of course.” He nodded, removing the bag and extending it to her.

She took the bag with both hands and slung the strap across her chest. “Thank you for going on an adventure with me today. I hope you had fun.”

“Yeah. We should do it again sometime.”

“For sure.” She paused, adjusting the bag. “So, tomorrow, then?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow.”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you then. Let me know if I can bring anything.”

“I think I can manage, but I’ll let you know if I think of anything.”

“Awesome. Have a good evening Barnes.”

“You too, Ramirez.”

There was a slight pause as they both made eye contact, and there was something in her expression that made Bucky pause. Before he could put his finger on what exactly it was, she smiled, nodded, and started walking back toward the horse village.

So she was going back to the village to send off her recording to Sam. Maybe, whenever he’d settled whatever it was that the Princess needed from him, he’d send off his message to Steve. He just might have something to say now, and with the promise of Latkes wafting in the air, he’d be able to send off a good message to Steve.

Watching until she disappeared from sight, Bucky turned and headed back down the path he’d come just a few hours before.

 

-

 

Maggie could feel his gaze on her as she walked away, and she smiled. That had been fun, had been a lot of fun, and from the sounds of it, Barnes had enjoyed himself as well, which felt like a big win all around. Aside from that, they’d made plans for tomorrow, which meant that she had something to look forward to, something to keep her mind off everything else swirling in her brain.

She made it back to the village and ducked inside.

Digging the wedding bands and chain out of the bag, she draped the chain around the Our Lady of Guadalupe statue and placed the rings on the statue’s hands.

Maggie smiled gently as she stroked the statue’s face. Someday you’ll be able to take off those wedding bands without feeling like you’re removing a part of yourself. Not today, not for a while yet, but eventually, it won’t hurt quite so much. She could hear Becca say, back in her living room, what felt like a thousand years ago.

It hadn’t felt that way this afternoon when she’d been so frantic she’d nearly made herself sick. It had felt like the world was ending, felt like everything was going to be crashing down around her. But then, it hadn’t, and once the initial panic had passed, she’d been able to move forward. She was thankful that Barnes had found them and was glad to have them back, of course, but she wouldn’t put them on a new chain and wouldn’t have them chain clasp repaired. Having them on her grandmother’s statue would be enough. It hurt, but it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as she thought it would.

You’re healing. She would’ve told her clients, had this been one of them. Instead, it was just her and her thoughts, and she had no one to tell, no one to remark on her slow, very slow progress. Maybe that was okay too.

Picking up the Kimoyo bead, she sat down, and hit record. “Hey Sammie! Thank you for your message. I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well and that the gang is together and likewise in good spirits and health.” She began brightly. “Sorry, it took me so long to get back to you. I wasn’t quite sure what to say.” She admitted. “I’m doing okay here, doing my best to settle into a routine. I really have enjoyed working with horses again. It’s been fun.” Maggie paused, taking in a deep breath. “Barnes and I have been hanging out, watching movies from the AFI’s 100 greatest American films list. Apparently, Steve has some strong feelings about Citizen Kane you need to ask him about. We went to the falls today, and I jumped off a big ledge into the water, which you know how I am about heights. I was concerned that Barnes was going to have to come and extract me from the top.” She chuckled. “But we’re good, I’m good. We’re doing well here.” Maggie paused again, looking around, a small smile turned up the corners of her mouth. Taking a deep breath, she began to sing. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the let your heart be light, from now on your troubles will be out of sight.” She continued singing.

The hut didn’t have the best acoustics, her voice was pitchy, but she managed through the whole thing without her voice wavering. And she wished, with all of her heart, with all of her might for the lyrics to be true. That their troubles would be miles away, that they’d all be able to gather nearer to one another than they were now, and that perhaps they’d be able to spend the years together, all of them, together, happy, like they’d been so very briefly that first holiday season together.

However, for now, it would just be her and Barnes. And while she never would admit it, it felt good to have a friend, to have James Barnes as her friend.

Chapter Text

The day had been a total clusterfuck, and that was putting it lightly. It was always staggering to Maggie how much could change in a few hours, never mind in a whole twenty-four, and as she walked toward the village where Barnes resided, she wasn’t entirely sure what exactly she was walking into.

For her part, she’d been thrown from her horse, Skywalker. She’d been learning a new technique, hadn’t been paying attention, and the horse had decided that enough was enough. She’d been thrown from the saddle and had landed incorrectly on her left hand and wrist. That had been early in the day, and so she’d spent most of her day with her hand on ice, moping around the workshop, trying to wile the hours away.

It was while she’d been doing a bit of cleaning up and trying not to feel sorry for herself that she’d overheard a conversation between Jelani and Omondi. Her Wakandan still wasn’t great, but she knew enough to catch White Wolf, goat, dead. Not exactly a lot to go off of, but Maggie knew that whatever had happened, it hadn’t been a good situation. Losing an animal, under any circumstance, was never easy. She’d lived on a ranch for most of her life, and occasionally shit just happened. It had happened to her on the ranch, and it hadn't been a good situation. No more than two weeks after Riley had died, Last Chance had gotten one hell of a bad thunderstorm. A horse, one of Riley’s favorites, had kicked her way out of the stall and barn and had impaled herself on a fence post. By the time Maggie had found her, it was too late, and there was nothing to do for the poor creature but to put it out of its misery. 

It had been a crushing blow, but Maggie had been able to handle it, as a professional. Whatever had happened with Barnes and his goat, it couldn't have been an easy thing, and she could imagine that he was taking it personally. Her first instinct had, of course, been to call and cancel their standing dinner date...arrangement. There was no reason to put him through social interaction after an ordeal like that. Something, however, had stopped her. Barnes, for one, hadn’t called to cancel, indicating in some small part that he wanted her around, or was looking for her company. If he didn’t want her around in the aftermath, certainly he would’ve called and said something, right?

Maggie didn’t know, and as she walked down the now familiar path toward his dwelling, she could feel a swelling sense of anxiety. The unknown factors all creating a churning bubbling mess of dread in the pit of her stomach.

Then she smelled it, the smell of utter despair, burnt food. It was the harsh, horrible smell of a kind of defeat. At least that’s the way that she had always felt about the smell and the experience, and a likely indication for how their evening was going to progress.

Rounding the last bend toward his hut, she saw him, hunched over a squat little table, trying to manage a grater and potato with one hand. There were marks on his hand and arm, indicating that he’d somehow been hurt, although the nature of the injury Maggie couldn’t tell from a distance. She could see the source of the burning smell, a large pan discarded in the dirt, the greasy, charred remains caked inside.

None of this was a good sign on its own, but as she approached, he didn’t look up. Instead, his eyes were down, and his mouth moving in silent mutterings.

“Hey,” She said as she approached, doing her best to ease herself into his periphery as gently as possible.

He flinched at the sound, not looking up to meet her gaze. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

Maggie nodded as she set her bag down on one of the logs surrounding the cooking fire and turned to join him at the low squat table. “I am a little late. I should’ve called to let you know I was running behind.” She paused, her resolve momentarily wavering before she charged on anyway. “I’m sorry about what happened. That’s never an easy thing.”

There was a long leaden pause. His head still down, Maggie could see him grit his jaw, swallowing hard before biting out. “You heard about that?”

“I did.” She nodded, stooping down to pick up the pan, she gingerly picked it up and carried it to the compost bin, scraping it out.

“Is that why you’re here?” He asked, flatly.

“I figured we’d made plans yesterday, and I'm anxious to cross another movie off our list,” Maggie paused as she walked over to the table, standing over him, she waited for him to look up at her. She knew that his face would tell her everything she needed to know about what had happened.

“Is that all?” His voice was dry and scathing, but not, Maggie felt, entirely directed at her.

“Well. You didn’t exactly cancel, I figured that you might want the company.”

Barnes sighed, his shoulders sagging, and he looked up at her. “Who told you?”

There was anger, frustration, but most of all sadness in his expression as he surveyed her, and Maggie knew, in her heart of hearts that whatever had happened Barnes had been forced to put the poor creature out of its misery, and that he felt personally responsible for the animal’s gristly end. “No one did, actually. I overheard Jelani and Omondi talking, caught some key phrases, and was able to piece together some of what had happened.” She explained slowly. Maggie paused, “May I sit down? Or do you want me to go away?”

Maggie watched as he mulled things over, clicking his jaw, as he did. Then, after what seemed like an eternity he nodded, and Maggie slowly sunk down across from him, collecting a rag, she doused it with cooking oil before setting about the task of cleaning and reconditioning the pan so that they could resume using it.

“I take it the first round of latkes didn’t come out right.” She commented dryly as she worked, determined to try to find some way to break the silence and lighten the mood.

“Not exactly.

“Well,” Maggie continued without pause, “Whatever the case, you have all the proper equipment. This pan is tremendously well seasoned. How long have you been using it?”

“Since September.” He said flatly. “It was a gift from Omondi. He said he was looking to replace his, thought I could use it.”

“Shit. Does he have any other well-seasoned pans just lying around? If I even tried to borrow my abuela’s cast iron, I would’ve been drawn and quartered. This pan must be a dream to cook with. Omondi must like you, or doubt your ability to season one properly yourself.” She said, wincing as she moved her left wrist the wrong way.

“What happened to your hand?”

“Oh." She hadn't expected that. So he’d noticed. He’s not entirely in his head. Maggie wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not but decided that she’d let that work itself out in due time. "I fell off Skywalker today.”

“You okay?” His tone was sharp and brittle, but his expression bore the faintest lines of concern.

“Yeah,” she nodded with a slight exhale. “Landed wrong, my wrist isn’t happy about it. I’m sure I’ll be right as rain in a few days. It did take me a little longer to make the snacks for this evening. Between dexterity issues and an aching wrist, it was not a good time.”

It freaked me the fuck out, but yeah, otherwise perfectly dandy. It had been a while since she'd been thrown like that, and she'd fallen all wrong. Bad shit could happen if you didn't fall right. She'd seen it first hand. But he didn't need to know that, not when he was dealing with his own barrage of horrible things.

“I can imagine.”

Maggie looked down, watching what he was doing a little more carefully. Blisters had formed where he’d been burned by the hot oil from the pan she was cleaning. Then there were scratches, cuts, and light bruising up and down his forearm that hadn't been there the day prior. Were they a result of what had happened today? It didn't matter, at the moment He was struggling at the moment to keep a firm grip on the potato, which kept slipping over the grater’s surface, mangling the potato he was attempting to slice up. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” He bit out.

As he said it, the potato he was grating slipped, and he jammed his thumb along the grater’s surface, taking a sizable chunk out of his nail bed, and knuckle. Barnes jumped up and back, nearly upsetting the table.

Maggie grabbed both corners steadying the table before standing up, towel in hand ready to leap, if necessary, into action, and  froze mid-motion, trying to take in everything she was seeing.

He was just standing there, looking at his hand as his thumb blossomed a magnificent red bloom. His eyes were transfixed, his chest heaving, and yet Maggie couldn’t help but notice, his face was smooth and flat. This she realized, was self-harm or something approximating self-harm, and now her job was to find a way to break the spiral he found himself in before it devolved into something else.

Is that really your job? The mean little voice in the back of her head questioned.

Why the fuck wouldn’t it be? I’m not just a therapist, he’s my friend. She would’ve responded full chested, had she responded out loud at all.

Instead, she looked Barnes up and down, “Barnes?” She called, with no response as he watched the blood run down his arm, and drip from his elbow into the dust. “Bucky.”

His eyes snapped up, locking with hers, something between anger and fear filling them as they maintained eye contact. “You’re bleeding, let me staunch the blood flow and help you bandage your hand and arm.”

“I’m fine. It’s fine. I can do it myself.” He snapped, even as his voice shook, his eyes darting down and around.

“Okay.” She nodded, taking a metaphorical step back.

This was familiar. She recognized this. This was the anger she’d had when she’d needed Sam to help her wash her hair those first few months. This was the pain, and anger, and frustration she’d felt when trying to relearn to play guitar. This was the feeling of helplessness and anger when you knew that only a few months ago you never would have had this problem. Barnes was experiencing that right now. Only his was worse. He’d lost the same arm twice, he’d been forced into a life of brainwashing and torture. He'd been made to commit atrocity after atrocity, where his only respite had come by being shoved into a freezer and left until next use for years on end. If one could call that a respite. He had been through so much without time to process what had happened and what it meant. Now after he'd finally had a quiet moment, tragedy had struck and all of this was rearing its ugly head.

So, where do you fit in?

Maggie wasn’t quite sure. If he didn’t want her help she couldn’t exactly force him to accept, while at the same time, she couldn’t let the guy hurt himself. He wasn’t her client and she wasn’t his therapist, but he was her friend, and she wanted to find a way to help him without crossing that very precarious threshold.

“I understand that you can do this on your own," Maggie said slowly. "You’re more than capable of taking care of yourself, of getting by on your own," she faltered as his gaze snapped back to her. “But the thing is, you don’t have to.” She concluded lamely. 

It wasn't her best line, but something crossed his expression, something unreadable, and after a long moment he nodded and extended his hand toward her.

Maggie crossed the space between them, stopping before they met. “I’m going to wrap your thumb with this towel, squeeze it in your palm to stop the bleeding while I get my first-aid kit from my bag.” She paused, glancing up at him. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah.” He breathed, nodding firmly.

“Okay.” She moved, quickly wrapping his thumb, watched as he squeezed it with his other fingers before she went for her bag, aware of the ways his eyes watched her.

They were back in the outbuilding once again. Only this time, she knew what he was capable of. Though she would admit it did help the situation slightly that he was down an arm, hadn’t just been stabbed, and wasn’t running away from Hydra. That aside, there was still that wild-eyed panic that she’d recognize anywhere that resided in his expression.

“You carry a first aid kit with you?” He asked dryly as she dug through her bag.

“I do.” She nodded, retrieving the desired items. “It’s always handy to have one around, I’ve done that ever since I worked as an EMT back in college.” It was a good sign that he was talking, it meant that he wasn’t immediately hyper-fixating on anything.

“Handy,” He chuckled mirthlessly.

Naturally. She’d let him have that one, at the very least.

“All right. let’s sit down on the log, that way I can face you, and see what I’m doing.” She said as she swung her leg over the log and sat down.

Barnes said nothing, moving toward her he sat straddling the log to face her. Opening the first aid kit, she flexed her left hand, rubbing it gingerly with her right. He was watching her. For what purpose, she didn’t know exactly, but somehow the observation made her stomach twist in nervous knots.

Well, this is all very familiar. She glanced up at him and sighed, “Okay. So while we wait for the bleeding to stop, I can clean and dress those scrapes and burns on your hand and arm.”

“Oh.” He said flatly.

“Oh?” She echoed, pulling her hands away from the first aid kit.

“I should’ve guessed you’d noticed that," Barnes replied, not quite sheepishly, but close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.

What exactly he meant by that, she didn’t know, but the sheer amount of shame in his voice made Maggie do a metaphorical double take. I can do it myself. That’s what he’d said.

Maggie knew that feeling, probably more than she cared to admit. The shame and anger as she tried to figure out how to wash or put up her hair or button her jeans without help. That and the countless other things she’d needed help with when her hand had been in the various stages of surgery, pins, and cast. The frustration and fury she'd felt when after she’d gotten the cast and pins out and off she'd started figuring out the countless things that she couldn’t do anymore, that she would never be able to do anymore. She’d been alone with that feeling of helplessness of anger, and she didn’t want Barnes to be alone with that now.

“I don’t know what you’re going through, not exactly.” She said slowly. “But I know some of what it’s like to feel so helplessly and completely angry about a situation that you can’t think straight. That anger, that’s okay, it’s okay to be angry at your situation, at what happened to you, at what was done to you, but don’t let that anger convince you that you deserve to hurt, or convince you that you’re alone, because you’re not alone, and you don’t deserve to hurt. Don’t let it consume you when you’re so much more than what it’s telling you that you are.”

Barnes surveyed her a moment, his eyes searching for something, and then wordlessly, he nodded and extended his arm to her.

“All right." She explained, removing the appropriate items from her kit, wincing slightly as her wrist twinged. "I have an anti-bacterial for the scrapes and an aloe for the burns. I’ll apply the aloe to the burns first. That'll alleviate the immediate discomfort."

“You don’t have to help if it’s hurting your hand and wrist," he mumbled, as if searching for some way out of this, some way to let her off the hook if she wanted.

“I’ll let you know," Maggie answered, pausing as she unscrewed the aloe. “It’s not so bad anymore. It certainly has gotten better since you gave me the bracelet,” She hazarded a glance up at him and found him avidly avoiding her gaze. “But thank you for your concern.” She said as she started applying the aloe with her left hand, her right hand holding his arm steady.

He winced hissing between his teeth.

“It’s a little cold. Sorry. I should’ve said something.”

“I’ve had worse.” He bit out shortly.

“Certainly. At least this time, there isn’t a knife protruding from your shoulder. By that measure alone, we’re going up in the world.”

Barnes snorted, shaking his head, but didn’t try to pull away from her grasp even as his hand shook.

“Nevertheless, the same rules apply, let me know if I’m hurting you.”

“It’s just cold.”

“Well, all the same,” Maggie said as she worked.

He nodded, but said nothing, watching her with those bright eyes. He was the perfect patient. He let her manipulate his hand, and held it still, although she could feel him trembling.

Maggie wanted to tell him it was going to be okay, that this feeling would pass. There were any number of platitudes that she would’ve said in soothing tones, had she thought any of them might have helped. But she knew they wouldn’t, and so instead, she hummed, focusing on completing her task quickly while trying to minimize as much of Barnes’s discomfort as she could possibly manage.

“And we’re done!” She announced as she finished securing the bandage around his thumb. “How does that feel? Better?” Maggie asked brightly, feeling more like the school nurse than someone patching up a former brainwashed assassin.

“Better.” He agreed. “Thank you.”

“Of course. Anytime.” Maggie smiled gently, watching as he slowly withdrew his hand and rose to his feet. She wanted to call him back. She wanted to reach out and grab his hand and hold it in both of hers and tell him it was going to be okay. She wanted the pain drawn lines in his expression to ease, and for him to smile and laugh as they'd done only twenty-four hours before.

The feeling came over her so suddenly, and with such force, she almost didn’t know what to do with herself. What are you doing, Magdalene? She would’ve screamed.

He’s my friend!

And it was true. He was her friend. She was concerned for him. Now, whether or not she was just a convenient distraction for him, she didn’t know, and at this point she was afraid to find out.

“Hey, Barnes.” She called, watching as he stopped, his back to her before he slowly turned to face her.

“Yeah?”

“It is okay that I’m here, right?” She asked uncertainly.

“What do you mean?” He replied perplexed.

“I mean. Do you want me here? I can leave if you want.”

Barnes hesitated, looking her over a moment before speaking again. “Why are you doing this, Ramirez?”

“Well...” She began slowly. “I was having a bit of a shit day yesterday, and you came to my rescue, were game for an adventure, and we had a lovely time. Since you never called to cancel after what happened, I figured you might be looking for a distraction or even a sympathetic ear.” Maggie paused, chewing on the corner of her mouth. “This living in Wakanda thing is hard, and a friend would be nice to have, someone to turn to when shit gets bad. And well, the shit that happened, that's not something you should have to deal with on your own.”

Barnes nodded, lowering his gaze. “I don’t think you want me as a friend, Ramirez.”

Was that a, “I don’t want you as a friend so you shouldn’t want to be my friend” type comment, or, “I’m not someone you should want as a friend,” type comment? Maggie wasn’t sure. So she wasn’t going to attempt to guess.

“Well, fortunately for both of us, you don’t get to decide who I want to be friends with.” She paused as he shifted uncomfortably. “But then again, I don’t get to decide who you want to be friends with either. The only question you have to answer is, do you want me as your friend?”

“It’s all as easy as that, huh?” He asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No, not quite. Friendship and all relationships for that matter are a moment by moment exercise in consent. Two willing participants. Choosing when and how they wish to interact, and communicating their desires with one another.”

“Sounds novel.” He commented wryly.

“Right? Well. It only works if both people are honest,” She said slowly. “Which makes this next question important. Do you-”

“Do you want to stay?” He asked, cutting her off.

Maggie exhaled with a small chuckle as she shook her head, “that’s not the point.”

“I think that is the point, Ramirez. You were just the one talking about two willing participants.”

“I’m also the one who’s in your home, invading your space after you had a shitty day.”

There was a long pause as if Barnes was drawing in a long breath. “Stay.” He said, forming the word purposefully. “I want...” He faltered.  “I want you to stay.” He concluded firmly. Barnes stopped, glancing back down and around at what remained of the potatoes, and the rest of dinner that still needed to be prepared. “Although, I’m not sure if dinner is in the equation.”

“Will you walk me through it?” Maggie asked hesitantly.

“Huh?”

“I’m willing to make dinner if you tell me what to do.”

He paused, a slight twinge of a self-deprecating smile twisted at the corner of his mouth. “I should hurt myself more often if it means having a beautiful dame patch me up and cook me dinner.”

If it had been anyone else or even another circumstance, Maggie might have protested. Instead, she chuckled, cracking a small smile of her own. “Why James Barnes, ever know a woman who wasn’t a doll or a dame?”

Barnes shook his head, “What was the line Dana Andrews responded with?”

“Yeah, one, but she kept walking me past furniture windows to look at the parlor suites.” Maggie supplied.

“So the line, ‘A doll from Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me’ that comes before or after that exchange?” Barnes said, squinting into the air as if straining to recall.

“Yeah, before.” She nodded. “So, how ‘bout it Bucky Barnes?” He looked back at her, brows furrowed. “Dinner?”

“Oh. Yeah. Right.” He hesitated, “You’d probably have a better feel for the latkes than I would at the moment. If you’re willing to take my instruction.”

“Absolutely.”

“Then it sounds like a plan.” 

"Sounds good." She smiled. It might only be dinner, but for now, it seemed that they were headed in the right direction.

-

 

Ramirez jumped quickly into action. Cleaning up the first aid kit, and stowing it away, she sunk down at the squat table where he’d been working and started back grating potatoes, after she’d washed and cleaned all of the stuff he’d gotten blood on. Bucky watched as Ramirez worked the grater and expertly added and mixed everything together, forming and patting the potatoes into their proper shape.                 

She hummed pleasantly, as she worked, her eyes focused on her task, occasionally asking him for guidance, though he couldn’t help but notice that she already knew the answer before he’d even said it. Her hands and her mouth working separately. She’d obviously been coached by Becca or Steve during her time with them. He couldn’t help but imagine the chaos that would have been Becca’s kitchen during any number of family holidays and gatherings. Steve towering over the group, too big and in the way, Ramirez diminutive and trying her best to keep her distance as an outsider, while Becca and the rest of her family surged in around them, pushing them both to the center of the fray.

He felt jealous, angry, hurt, and somehow confused all at once. What he was feeling, and why he was feeling it swirled inside him creating a maelstrom. It wasn’t fair, none of it was fair, and he could still feel the anger, simmering just below the surface. He felt shame too, and it welled in his chest, nearly overtaking the sour bitter taste of the anger that threatened to devour him completely.

His left shoulder was stinging, a sharp pain in his spine, the air where his left hand and arm should have been burned and ached. It had been stinging all day, ever since...well what had happened had happened. His right hand, his only hand he mentally corrected, was throbbing, the little cuts and bruises, and burns stinging and aching as he flexed his fingers.

He could see it still, the goat staring up at him, eyes glassy and wide, practically begging for the end. Of course, he’d put the poor creature out of its misery, but then again, that’s really all he was good at, wasn’t it? He’d been good at it as a soldier. He’d been even better at it when he’d been with Hydra. Now, even thousands of miles away from that rat hole, missing a limb, and allegedly free from their programming, he was still in their insidious clutches, he was still capable of causing pain, suffering, and death.

Omondi had assured him that he’d done the right thing, that sometimes these things happened.

But they shouldn’t. I should’ve been able to stop it. I should be better than this.

He hadn’t said that, but he felt it, in his bones, down to the very fiber of his being. He felt inadequate, he felt useless, he felt like a complete and total idiot for thinking that he might be able to move past what had happened to him, for thinking he could be something more than what Hydra had made him into. Yet here they were.

Bucky glanced up at Ramirez who was patiently waiting for the oil to heat as she prepped the rest of dinner. He’d invited her over for dinner to thank her for being his friend, and now here she was patching him up, and cooking him dinner, yet again.

Why is she doing this?

He’d asked her that. And she’d said because she’d wanted a friend, that she’d wanted to be his friend. Because she was bored? Because she was lonely? He didn’t know, and as she’d said, he didn’t get to decide why she wanted to be friends with him.

“How’s your hand feeling?”

“Better," Bucky replied with a slight exhale, doing his best to relieve the tension still balled up in his chest trying to claw it’s way out.

“That’s good, I’m glad," Ramirez commented, placing the first of the latkes into the pan. She hummed to herself, her eyes watching the potatoes as they bobbed in the oil.

“Do you like cooking?” He asked slowly after a moment as she flipped the potato cakes over.

“Some.” She nodded, “I prefer cooking for other people. There’s just something about cooking a meal with and for other people that I really enjoy. I don’t know if it’s a me thing, a Mexican thing, or what, but I’ve always enjoyed the fellowship a good meal creates.” Ramirez glanced up at him and smiled gently. “How about you, Barnes? Did you pick up any good recipes while you were out in the world?”

“A few.”

“You’ll have to share some time. I’d be happy to give you some of mine if you’d like. Do you keep kosher?” She asked brightly without skipping a beat as she scooped the first latkes out of the oil, and placed them on a plate beside her before placing the next batch in the oil.

The latkes were golden brown and glistening, and the smell that wafted off of them made his mouth water. He could practically hear his mother scold and swat him away as he tried to sneak one before it was time. The force of the memory was so strong that he could feel tears start to well in the corners of his eyes.

“Taste test my work, see if it’s up to snuff," Ramirez commented.

“You sure?” He managed, blinking.

“Absolutely. I need to know if I need to change anything before I do the rest of them.”

He gingerly picked up one of the little potato cakes and took a careful bite, exhaling as the hot greasy mass burned the inside of his mouth. That hadn’t changed at all, and the taste...the taste was close, as was the consistency, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly was off as Ramirez’s expression of expectation grew and spread in anticipation. “It’s good.” He said, swallowing the first bite.

“May I?” She motioned with her chin to the latke he was holding.

“Huh?”

“Shove some in my face? My hands are occupied, but I’d like a taste test.”

“Oh. Yeah, sure.” He rose, extending the latke to her, watched as she took a careful bite, likewise contemplating what she was tasting.

Chewing and swallowing, she glanced up at him. “So, what’s the verdict, Barnes?”

“What do you think?”

“I mean, I’m trying to recreate your mother’s latke recipe. You tell me.” She chuckled, removing the next round of potatoes.

Bucky hesitated. What was he supposed to say? What did she want him to say? She was here, making him dinner when he’d specifically invited her over so he could make her dinner, and now she asked him to critique her cooking. “It’s close.” He admitted after a moment.

Ramirez nodded in consensus. “Yeah. Your niece, Stephanie, and I tried to get Becca to write down the recipe. She followed Becca around with a set of measuring cups and spoons while Becca was making the latkes and wrote down all the pinch, dash, etc. Still not quite right. Then again, Becca said the same thing about her latkes too.”

“Abby and Rachel were always the ones helping ma’ with dinner. Becca always found a way not to be in the kitchen when food was being made.” Bucky commented distantly.

“That sounds about right.” Ramirez chuckled. “So. What do I add? What do I take away?”

“I dunno.” He frowned, shaking his head. “That’s a pretty good base recipe. We’ll have to play with it a bit. There are a few more days of Hanukah left to perfect the recipe.”

“Sounds good. I did bring apple sauce to eat with them, since I know that was something your nieces and nephew insisted had to be present as well. You can get it out of my bag if you’d like, but be careful, I have the buñuelos on top.”

“Buñuelos?” He echoed as he rose and crossed the yard to where her bag was sitting.

“Crunchy tortillas with sugar and cinnamon.” She explained quickly, as she added the final round of latkes into the pan.

“Ah.” He said as he removed both containers and returned to the small table.

“Bit of a Christmas tradition for my family, something I didn’t get to make this year.” She commented lightly. She paused, shaking her head.

“What?” Bucky asked.

“This whole situation sounds like a bad set up to an even worse joke.”

“The one-armed Jew and the Mexican-American Catholic walk into a bar?” Bucky raised an eyebrow, doing his best to ease the angry, bitter edge from his voice.

“Something like that.” She nodded with a sigh, a heaviness sinking onto her shoulders. “You never did tell me if you keep kosher.”

“Oh.” He said shortly. “No. I don’t. Why?”

“Trying to be respectful of your culture and traditions. Becca kept kosher, as did her kids. Steve and Wanda, not as much. I guess I wanted to know how bad I should feel for feeding you pork while you were with me on the ranch,” She explained, starting on the roasted chicken and greens, as the last of the latkes came out of the oil.

“That.” He stopped as a lump formed in his throat. “That’s very kind of you, Ramirez. But regardless of if I keep kosher, there are exceptions to those rules when it comes to emergency medical situations.”

Besides, at the time, I didn’t know who I was, never mind what faith I belonged to, and it’s particular practices.

Bucky could still only vaguely remember those first days. He’d been barely conscious, never mind human, but he did remember the green chili stew broth she’d given him. It had been the first thing he’d been able to hold down on his stomach after Hydra. Yet, it wasn’t just the broth, it wasn’t just the food that she’d given him to help him regain his strength, it was the trust she’d shown by allowing him around her, her clients, her volunteers, her property, and her animals. It was the fact that she was one of the first to treat him like a human, like a person since he’d been taken by Hydra. She’d taken him in, and she’d protected him, she’d saved him.

He licked his lips, unable to formulate what he was trying to piece together. How could he express that to her? That she had prevented Hydra from finding him just long enough so he could getaway. That the very reason he was Bucky Barnes and not back in a Hydra facility as the Winter Soldier again was in large part because of her bravery and willingness to help someone who frankly wasn't worth saving. It was too much to try to say.

“It’s good to know regardless. However, now I know that I can make my green chili stew again without having to find pork alternatives,” She shrugged.          

Bucky nodded, looking her over. “Thank you. For all this. You didn’t have to.” It wasn’t enough, it would never be enough, but it was all he could manage at the moment

“You found the two rings I’d lost, and you helped me the other week with my hand, and you bought me a shaved ice.”

“You’re not keeping score, are you? Because I don’t think any number of shaved ices is going to balance the scales.”

“Well.” She answered, deliberately. “I don’t see it as keeping score. I see it as friends helping one another out. Yanno, being friends.”

You don’t want to be my friend, Ramirez. He wanted to say, but they’d already had that conversation, and it wasn’t one that he was going to be able to win.

Friendships are a moment by moment exercise in consent.

But what about trust? Did she trust him? Could he trust himself? He didn’t have an answer, or rather, didn’t have an answer he liked at the moment.

“All right. Dinner is ready.” Ramirez announced, and the task of fixing plates and settling down to eat filled the empty space between them.

Everything was delicious, and her homemade applesauce complimented the salt and spice of the rest of the meal. Once dinner had concluded, they moved in tandem to clean the dishes before Ramirez unwrapped her package of buñuelos, and he set about the task of making their customary popcorn.

Then before they could go inside his hut to start the film, Ramirez hesitated. “Are you sure you’re up for watching the rest of the film?”

Was this her out? Was this her way to quietly excuse herself and avoid further contact with him?

No. Moment by moment exercise in consent, remember?

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Okay,” she said, eyeing him uncertainly. “It's just-I mean, now that I’ve come and tormented you with my presence and made sure you’ve eaten dinner, do you want me to leave you in peace? You’re not obligated to spend your evening with me just because we made plans.” She said.

“Tormented?” He echoed. "I wouldn't call what you did torment."

“Then what would you call it? Being patched up by a beautiful dame? That was the expression you used earlier.” A playful smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, before she looked down, the slightest hint of a blush rising on the apples of her cheeks. Clearing her throat and smoothing her expression, she looked back up at him. “In all seriousness, though, I don’t want to subject you to me if you’d rather be left alone.”

Bucky nodded, thinking through what he wanted to say next.

If this had been an hour ago, he would’ve told her to leave, he would’ve been content to wallow, to lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling as his self-loathing and all the horrifying things he didn’t want to think about crowded around him and filled his brain with even worse thoughts. Earlier, when she’d asked, he hadn’t even been sure he could stomach eating anything, never mind maintain enough mental and physical energy to have her around long enough to finish the movie. Yet, selfishly, he'd told her yes, stay, that he wanted her to stay. He had wanted her to stay, but more out of concern for what he might do if she left, rather than for the pleasure of her company. Now, he wasn’t sure what he wanted, or furthermore what he should do. Shouldn’t he tell her to go home, that he wasn’t good company, and that they could watch the movie some other night? Wouldn’t that be the responsible thing?

However, If he was honest, he didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts, selfish though it was, and so he’d ask Ramirez to stay, whether she accepted was entirely up to her.

A moment to moment exercise in consent.

“I’d like you to stay.” He said slowly. “So long as that’s okay with you.”

“That sounds good to me.”

Bucky nodded, and they moved wordlessly into his hut, and sat down on his sleeping mat, positioning their snacks and drinks around them, before turning on the film. Dimming the lights, Bucky could feel the knot in his chest ease slightly as he felt her relax beside him in the dark. There was a certain level of familiarity and comfort to the whole thing now, watching a movie, eating snacks, in the dark with her.

He did his best to focus on the movie, but he remembered now why he’d fallen asleep twice in the theaters. It just went on too damn long. Now he found himself having a hard time focusing on what was going on. At the very least, it seemed that Ramirez was enjoying herself, although out of the corner of his eye, he could see her blinking heavily, her eyes drooping, her head bobbing in that unmistakable sign of nodding off.

“You okay?” He murmured just below the movie’s audio, but loud enough that she could hear him.

“Hmmm yeah, fine.” She answered, rubbing her eyes sleepily as she pulled his border tribe blanket closer to her. “My eyes are tired.”

You can go home if you want to. He almost said it, but couldn’t quite form the words.

Bucky wanted her here with him. Her presence was calming, comforting even. He found that even when his thoughts had been loud, she’d been a fixed point that could cut through all of the noise. What perhaps surprised Bucky most was that she’d been here, again, without him even having to ask, to extend the hand of friendship and pull him out of his head when he needed it most. She’d said it, multiple times and in multiple ways: friends, friendship, this is what friends do, and you don’t have to do it alone.

That sentiment, that statement, the combination of action and words, that wasn’t out of boredom or obligation. It couldn’t be. And she certainly wasn’t here because this was all a barrel of laughs. Which could only mean she was here because she knew he was having a bad day, not despite it. She was here because she saw him as a friend.

I’m a friend, not just a way to pass the time.

He turned that thought over and over in his mind. It was the only logical conclusion for why she’d decided to show up and further had more decided to stay when he wasn’t exactly the most pleasant company at the moment.

He was angry, he was moody and unbalanced. He was dangerous. What puzzled him was that Ramirez knew all of that, on an academic and practical level. She knew all of that, and yet here she was, extending the hand of friendship when he was wholly unworthy and perhaps incapable of being a good friend in return.

Bucky froze at the sensation of pressure against his right shoulder, and he looked over and down to find Ramirez slumped against him, eyes closed, breathing even, face smooth.

He opened his mouth to wake her but hesitated.

She trusts me. She trusts me enough to fall asleep in my presence, to let her guard down so completely and totally that she was able to nod off here in the dark with me.

Bucky stayed perfectly still, watching as she adjusted her position slightly, her head and shoulder against his shoulder and arm, her hair falling from its messy bun and streaming over their shoulders. He knew he should probably wake her, but he wanted to take in this moment a little longer.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he exhaled a long, slow, shaking breath.

It had been a very long, very difficult day. Tomorrow would likewise be long and difficult, as well. But this, right here, with Ramirez, whatever it was, he felt like he could breathe, like a little bit of the world had lifted off his shoulders, and had dulled the pain away, if only for a little bit. This, he decided, was friendship, and he wanted it, and furthermore wanted to deserve her friendship.

Opening his eyes, he slowly moved his arm and adjusted the blanket around her shoulders as she leaned even further into him, her breathing deep and even, her expression peaceful.

And the movie played on.

Chapter Text

It was New Year’s Eve, and It had been a few days since she’d fallen asleep during Gone With the Wind. She'd been embarrassed, but Barnes had been kind enough to wake her for the dramatic last line and had made her a cup of coffee before walking her home.

He’d insisted, of course, that he couldn’t ‘have you staggering around the Wakandan countryside half asleep in the middle of the night.’

She’d protested feebly, but ultimately he’d prevailed and had walked her all the way home.

He’d sent her a text when he’d made it back, and that was the last time she’d heard from him. It had been radio silence, and Maggie wasn’t sure if she should be concerned. She hoped he was okay, or at the very least, being kind to himself. She’d thought about reaching out to him today, considering it was the last day of Hanukah and New Year’s Eve.

Maggie had been so close to texting him that she’d typed out the message and had nearly sent it before deleting the damn thing. If he wanted her around, he’d reach out to her.

Yes, but you want him around.

Yes. She did. But she’d decided when she’d first come to Wakanda that she was going to let Barnes set the parameters of their relationship, whatever it was, and so she’d refrain from texting or calling him.                         

They’d been working on drills again today. She’d tried her best to focus, but all she could think about was being thrown, and what could happen. She’d been around horses all of her life, long enough to know what exactly the worst-case scenario. Jelani had taken notice, and then taken pity, giving her the rest of the day off. She’d decided to go into town to do some shopping and walk through a few of the Royal Wakandan museums. Do anything to distract or get her out of her head.

Maggie adjusted her bag on her shoulder and sighed, trying to ease some of the tension in her chest. Her eyes darted up and down the busy streets.

Easier said than done.

Coming into town was stressful. It was intimidating, and people starred. Not that she blamed them. She was an outsider, and her Wakandan wasn’t for shit. They were kind enough to correct her pronunciation and likely overcharged her because she couldn’t haggle regardless of what language she was speaking.

Even more than that, Maggie didn’t like crowds, and while she knew Wakanda wasn’t Juarez, there was still that edge of anxiety as she waited for something to go wrong.

She’d been on edge all week, falling off Skywalker had done that to her. Barnes and his shitty day had actually helped distract her from what she was feeling and thinking. Not exactly the best coping mechanism, but it had done in a pinch.

But she knew she couldn’t continue to rely upon Barnes’s various crises to distract her from what her trauma was doing. Which is why she was here in the market, buying odds and ends, and this and that. She’d even purchased herself a journal. Whether or not she’d use it was a different story, but she figured, perhaps in vain, that it was indeed the thought that counted.

On top of day time anxiety, Maggie hadn’t been sleeping well, her mind occupied with well, with everything. Barnes, being thrown from the horse, memories of Juarez, memories of the house fire. It hadn’t been a good time, and now she was looking for a distraction                      

“Funny running into you here.”

Maggie whirled around to see none another than James Barnes, a few feet behind her. “Hey.” She forced a quick smile. “It is a funny coincidence. What are you doing here?”

“Brain checkup with the Princess.” He shrugged, “What about you?”

“Oh, you know. Feeling a little stir crazy. Asked Jelani for the day off, I was just doing a little shopping. Then I was going to walk through the Royal Museum, I’ve heard they have an excellent Astronomy and Space exploration exhibit.” She said as lightly as she could manage.

“Sounds like a full day.”

“Yeah. Something like that.” She nodded with a short sigh. “Everything’s good with you, though, right?” Maggie winced internally at the edge in her voice. Was it too eager? Too obvious? I mean, they were talking about his brain here. That wasn't something to be dealt with lightly. 

“Yes. Usual appointment.” He said as if sensing her uncertainty.

“Oh. Usual appointment. That’s good.” She practically stammered.

What is wrong with you? Why are you acting so weird? She silently scolded herself.

“Yeah.” Barnes agreed. “How long are you in town?”

“Oh. Well. I’m more or less done with my shopping and was going to head over to the Museum here in a few minutes. How about you?”

“My appointment is in half an hour, but it shouldn’t take to long.”

“Would you like to join me after? It seems like it’s your type of thing.” Maggie rushed like if she didn’t get all the words out, he might turn and leave, and she wouldn’t get another chance.

“My type of thing?” He echoed.

Shit. Had she overstepped? Her mind raced as she examined his expression for context clues. Much to her surprise, rather than angry, or reserved, he looked relaxed. His hair was pulled back in half up, half down, and he was wearing a more traditional Wakandan style shirt and pants, with his usual scarf. He was at ease, everything about him was soft lines. “Yeah.” She continued, uncertainly. “You know, science, technology. Nerd Stuff.” She tossed in at the end for good measure.

“Nerd stuff.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “You have spent too much time around Steve and Becca.”

“I’ve spent a fair bit of time around you too, James Barnes. I can certify that you’re a nerd too.” She smiled again, but this time it came a little bit easier for her.

Barnes nodded, “I can meet you after. You headed over now?”

“Yeah.” She replied.

“It’s in the same building as the laboratory.” There was a hesitance to his expression before he asked. “Do you mind if I walk with you?”

“No. Not at all. I wouldn’t mind the company. Just let me pay for my stuff, and we’ll be on our way.” Maggie said as she removed her wallet from her bag.

Before she could turn to the shop keeper, Barnes had slipped between them and was talking in quick Wakandan, negotiating the price, before he slid the appropriate coinage across the counter.

“Barnes. You didn’t have to do that.” Maggie stammered, collecting her things as they started walking.

“No.” He agreed, nodding. “I didn’t.”

“But?” Maggie led.

At this again, he paused, “I never did say thank you. For helping me the other day.”

“Of course. I meant to ask, how’s your hand and arm?”

“Good. They’re good.”

“I’m glad to hear.”

“You didn’t have to do that, you know.” He continued after a moment.

“Do what?”

“Patching me up, yet again.”

“I wasn’t just going to stand there and watch you bleed.”

“I mean,” He began again, haltingly. “I wouldn’t have been able to clean and dress my wound if you hadn’t been there.” He admitted.

Ah. Maggie nodded. She knew he was fishing, that he was looking for some sort of reaction. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling, never mind what he was expecting her to say. But he did expect some kind of reaction. He’d expected some kind of reaction when they’d been at the falls, and then she was reasonably sure he’d expected her to coddle him when he’d cut himself.

She really didn’t know what he wanted her to say. He hadn’t her given her much to go on if he did. ‘Let him set the parameters of the relationship,’ that’s what she’d told herself, and so if he wanted to talk about it, he’d have to do more than just drop hints.

“You’re resourceful. I have no doubt you would’ve figured something out, James Barnes.” She managed finally.

There was a pause as he looked her over. “You know that you can just call me Bucky if you’d like, doll.”

He tensed as soon as he’d said it, and she couldn’t help but smile. “If I do, will you stop calling me doll?” She laughed. “You can call me Maggie if you like, although it doesn’t have the same ring.”

“Now you’re just making fun of me.”

“Come on, Barnes, this is the 21st century!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Maggie opened her mouth but found that a blush had started to rise on her cheeks. Women like a man who doesn’t take himself seriously. Is what she was going to say. And she had no reason why she shouldn’t, but the way Barnes was looking at her, combined with the rising blush, she found that she couldn’t quite form the words.

“Is this about how the nature of women and men has changed since I’ve been out of the world?” he asked, raising a playfully skeptical eyebrow.

“No.” She shook her head. “No. I was simply going to say don’t take yourself too seriously.”

“Uh, huh.”

“What?”

“You weren’t actually going to say that, were you?”

Was the lie that obvious? She couldn’t quite tell, but now she had to either lie some more or find a way to say what she was going to say. “No," Maggie said slowly. “I was, frankly, getting ready to be quite heteronormative, and I was a little embarrassed at myself.”

“Ah," he answered shortly. “Well, now I’m curious.”

She took a deep breath but was cut off before she could answer. “You don’t have to say it, if you don’t want to, Ramirez.”

Maggie glanced up at him, there was a faint hint of a satisfied smile on his face. Not that he was mocking her per-say, but that he was thoroughly enjoying this entire exchange, which by all accounts, was a good thing. “Don’t you mean doll?”

“Would you prefer that over Ramirez?”

“As I said, Maggie is perfectly fine.”

“All right, all right. Maggie.” He said, pronouncing her name first name with care, as if afraid if it was mishandled, it might break.

Much to her embarrassment, her stomach fluttered. She chewed on the corner of her mouth, trying to clamp the feeling down, she charged on, “It’s the 21st century Barnes, women like a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

A thoughtful expression crossed over his face, and he nodded. “Not the most heteronormative thing I’ve ever heard.” He chuckled. “Does it apply to men as well? Do men like men who don’t take themselves too seriously? Or women for that matter?”

Maggie exhaled slightly, adjusting her bag again. “Well, as far as men liking men is concerned, you’d have to ask Steve or Sam about all of that.”

“It is good to know how men and women fit into the equation in this modern world of yours.” He said with not too much sarcasm.

“Modern world of mine?” She echoed. “I don’t think I can take that much credit for things.”

“Well, you are a millennial.”

“Oh. Getting into some generational warfare are we, Bucky Barnes?” She raised an eyebrow. “And how, dare I ask, are we doing, seeing as you’re the poster boy of The Greatest Generation.”

“Me?” Bucky snorted, shaking his head. “You’re talking to the wrong person.” He paused as they reached the lobby of the massive Royal Laboratory, stopping outside the doors. He glanced around before leveling his watchful gaze. “But I think if you were to ask Steve. I think he’d say that you kids are doing all right.”

“But I didn’t ask Steve, did I?” Now she knew she was being coy, but she wanted to hear what he had to say. Particularly as a representative of the so-called “greatest generation.”

“No.” He agreed. “But unfortunately, I have an appointment to get to.”

“Right. You do.” She nodded, doing her best to quell her disappointment, but he wasn’t wrong, he did have his appointment to get to. “Meet you down here in an hour?”

“Sure. I’ll see you then!”

“Good luck!”

Bucky paused, surveying her, an odd expression passing only momentarily over his face. “Thanks. You too.”

Maggie watched as he walked to the lift that would take him to the laboratory. You can call me Bucky if you’d like, doll.

She couldn’t help but smile as she glanced down at the fabric he’d bought for her. She’d have to make him something out of the scraps if there was anything left after she made a dress for herself.

What the afternoon held in store for her, for them, she didn’t know, but she was glad. Glad he was here, glad that she wasn’t alone, that she and Bucky were together, here, now.

 

-

 

It had been a strange day already, and Bucky felt slightly lightheaded as he entered the laboratory where the Princess was waiting for him.

“Hey, White boy! Right on time.” She called playfully. “You know the drill, up on the table.” They moved in silent unison in their familiar routine.

The Princess started the scan as usual, and he could feel his mind raced. It had been a surprise running into Ramirez...Maggie. He hadn’t seen her since they’d watched ‘Gone With the Wind.’ He’d wanted to reach out, wanted to ask her over for dinner again. He’d perfected his latke recipe in the meantime, and he owed her dinner. A real dinner, one that didn’t involve her patching him up.

When he’d seen her today, in the market, she’d looked...well upset wasn’t quite the right word for it, but there was an edge to her. But she had laughed and smiled at him and had seemed perfectly cordial. Seemed, of course, being the operative word. What had happened since the last time they’d seen each other? Had he done something to upset her? He hadn't seen her how could he have upset her?

She had invited him to go to the museum with him. She’d been under no obligation to do that. So it was logical that she wanted him around. Right?

“So any plans for tonight?”

“Pardon?” He stammered, glancing up at her through the holographic displays as she worked.

“It’s the News Years and I believe the last day of Hanukkah for you. Any big plans?”

“Oh. Magg-Ramirez and I are going to the Wakandan Royal Museum this afternoon.” Bucky answered truthfully. Silently kicking himself for tripping up and almost using her first name, which would likely lead to merciless teasing from the princess.

“Again?” The Princess asked.

“Yes. Again.” Bucky winced. He hadn’t mentioned it to Maggie, but he’d first been to the museum shortly after he’d been pulled from cryo. He’d sort of wandered into the museum in between the various scans and tests. He’d spent hours going through the museum that first day, and since then, he’d been back two or three times, usually just after his scans.

“I take it Ms. Ramirez doesn’t know?” The Princess commented a knowing tone in her voice.

“She didn’t ask.”

“Did you invite her, or did she invite you?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well, certainly, it would determine whether or not it’s a date.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, shaking his head. “No. It’s not a date.”

“So. She asked you.” The princess practically giggled. “It’s good. You two spending time together. Social interaction, it’s good for you. What does she like?”

“What do you mean?”

“It means what it means, what does she like? What are you two going to see in our museum today?”

Bucky had to stop himself from sighing. Of course. Of course, the princess was going to get involved. I shouldn’t have mentioned anything. But there wasn’t any shame in it, in them spending time together. He enjoyed her company. So he trudged on. “I think she wanted to see the Astronomy and Space exploration exhibits.”

“You’ll have to take her into the planetarium.”

Bucky paused, thinking back to that time that he’d found her in the field. She’d talked about being unable to sleep and wanting to stargaze. “Yeah. I think she’d like that.” He hesitated, licking his lips. “Does the planetarium...does it have a set...program?” He asked slowly.

“No. Why?” She leaned into his field of vision just enough to where he could see her forehead and eyes.

Bucky sighed, rolling his eyes, bobbing his head in a conciliatory gesture. “She mentioned that she liked stargazing.” He said shortly, leaving out how he’d gathered that information.

In his defense, that had been purely accidental and hadn’t happened again. Although he would be a liar if he didn’t admit, at least to himself, that the thought had occurred to him to walk over one of his many sleepless nights to see if he’d find her out there again.

A huge grin spread over The Princess’s face.

“Why do I feel like I’ve missed something?” He asked uncertainly.

“Not at all. I’ll have to give you the override code, so Ms. Ramirez can stargaze wherever her heart desires,” She said, her hands manipulating the holographic readout. “Your brain looks good, White boy. I’ll have you out of here in a moment so you can get to your date with Magdalene.”

Not a date. He would’ve quipped back, but he knew that she was playing the role of the younger sibling spectacularly, and any response on his part would only provide fuel to that particular fire.

Instead, he just listened as she started humming something that vaguely resembled a Disney song.

The princess finished up her work, gave him the override, and sent him on his way. His mind was still spinning. He was still concerned about here, and now The Princess had put it into his head that what they were doing was considered a “date.” They were acquaintances, friends, if even. It wasn’t a date, they were just spending time together doing something they both enjoyed. Oh, shi-

“Hey, Bucky!” Ramirez’s voice interrupted his thoughts, and he found her sitting on a bench outside the main entrance to the museum waving him over, the museum map spread across her lap.

“You didn’t wait on me, did you?” He asked as he approached.

“Oh. No. I went through most of the history wing. I figured I’d come out here and wait for you, so you didn’t have to track me down.” She said, standing up and adjusting the strap to her bag. “Good appointment?”

“Yeah. Everything looks good.”

“Wrinkly and fatty?” She inquired with a quick smile.

“So far as I’m aware.”

“Good good. So, where do you wanna start?”

“Pardon?”

“Well, as you’re the science nerd between the two of us.”

“Thanks for that,” He snorted.

“Come on, Barnes. You spent your last night stateside at a science expo. That’s absolutely prime nerd activity.”

“Okay, yes, what’s your point? Other than making fun of me.”

“I’m not making fun. I’m just curious. What bit’s your favorite? So I know where we should start in the science and technology wing. So come on science nerd, what’s your favorite?” She laughed.

“Technological innovations and engineering.” He said shortly.

“Awesome. Sounds good. It’s right near the front of that wing anyway.” Ram-Maggie said. “Shall we?”

“After you.”

They walked side by side through a few of the exhibits before she spoke again. “So why technology and engineering?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what sparks your interest?”

“Oh. Umm. I mean. What isn’t interesting about computers, flying cars, electric machines to wash and dry your clothes for you or do the dishes? I always wanted to figure out how they worked and how such technology could make our lives better.”

He winced as he heard the sickening sincerity in his voice. He believed it, and he meant it, it just sounded so very naive, and he braced himself, waiting for her to laugh at him.

Instead, she just nodded thoughtfully, “That makes sense to me."

“It does?” His disbelief was palpable.

“Well, sure. Better living through technology. Certainly, a product of the era you were born and raised. In the same way that I came of age where we were all fairly convinced that technology was going to destroy us all.”

You’re welcome for that. He would’ve said had he felt up to it. It had been rattling around in his brain since she’d asked how he’d thought her generation was doing as the “poster boy” for the greatest generation. If he was the “poster boy” for the Greatest Generation, then it was a pretty damning indictment of what his generation has accomplished. After all, he’d shaped the century, as Pierce had so often remarked. He’d murdered, infiltrated, assassinated, and sabotaged to create the conditions for the Cold War, it’s proxy wars, and much much more.

“You all right there, Barnes?” Ramirez asked.

“Yeah. Got lost in my head a bit.” He managed, lamely. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You enjoy walking around museums all day. I’d say that qualifies you as a bit of a nerd.”

“Oh. No. Absolutely. Although, I’m far less interested in what could be loosely classified as the ‘hard sciences.’ I enjoy my social sciences and humanities. I like figuring out how people work.”

“Hence your fascination with me?” He commented, perhaps a little more unkindly than he’d intended.

To her credit, she shook her head and snorted. “No, Bucky Barnes, believe it or not, I enjoy your company. You’re not one of my social science projects, and I’m very glad for that."

“Why’s that?”

She looked up at him, her brow wrinkled in confusion. “I’d much rather have you as a friend than a client.”

“Oh.”

Ramirez...Maggie smiled before returning her attention to the next exhibit as they entered the medical technology and innovations wing.

They walked through in silence, reading each of the little cards, which had been conveniently translated into a number of languages. Bucky could feel his heart pounding in his throat as they approached a case of prosthetic limbs. He and the princess had sat and talked multiple times in front of that case. Talked about his options, talked about all that Wakandan technology could do for him, talked about the inevitable. Dread set in as she moved closer to the case, her brows furrowed, and focused on one of the artifacts, an impressive articulating prosthesis from the 18th century, made of steel and vibranium.

Here we go. She’s going to ask. He wasn’t entirely quite sure if he wanted her to ask about his prosthesis (and lack thereof) or not, or if it was just the anticipation of her asking was what was putting him entirely on edge.

“Hmm.” She murmured more to herself than the room at large. “Better living through technology.” She muttered before looking back down at the map of the exhibit halls.

No questions came.

Say something. Why won’t you say something?

He wanted her to ask, wanted her to say something. It would relieve the pressure, relieve the unknown. The silence grew and swelled and expanded between them until it rose like a buzzing in his ears, crackling with energy until it neared a deafening roar. “You haven’t asked.” He blurted out.

“Asked what?”

What did she mean asked what? Bucky couldn't believe it, how did she not know what he was talking about? But he was the one who wanted answers, and so he pressed onward. “Why the Wakandans haven’t given me a new one.” He said, hoping to clarify things a bit.

“Oh.” She said shortly, as she turned to face him. “No. I guess I haven’t.” There was a hesitance in her voice before she continued. “I figured you had your reasons, but that it really wasn’t any of my business.”

“But you must be curious.” He continued as they moved to the next display. “After everything you’ve seen and heard, and read...well?” Bucky felt stupid as he spoke, but he needed to know.

“Well. I guess I should say this upfront." She picking out her words deliberately. "I’m not ignoring your disability. I’m trying to give you the space and dignity of deciding when and how you want or need accommodation, or when and how you want to talk about...well, everything. You don’t need me, or anyone else for that matter ogling or asking invasive and tremendously personal questions just because you’re very clearly missing a limb.”

“So, you do have questions.”

“Well. Yes.”

But you’re going to let me talk about it when I wanna talk about it.

It only made sense, considering her background. “I forget you’re a therapist.”

“Well, these days, I’m mostly a beautiful dame. I do my best to keep my therapist voice out of it. It’s not what you signed up for.”

No. It wasn’t. But it still surprised him. How she approached things. How she was doing her best to not ogle or make him uncomfortable. “So, what do you want to know?” He was going to push her. Just a bit. Not because he could, but because he wanted to know what she thought, what she thought of all of it. After all, she had spent two years doing research on him.

“What do you want to share with me?”

Yet again, she was going to let him guide the discussion. He’d just assumed she had a laundry list of questions. Bucky paused, licking his lips.

What did he want to share?

“You were right about nearly all of it. You knew more than I certainly ever did while I was with Hydra.” He admitted slowly. “You asked me about feeling in the prosthesis. Back on your ranch.”

“Yeah.” She nodded, urging him on.

“It wasn’t sensation, per-say. It was more like knowing where it was, what it was doing, how much pressure was being exerted, size shape, weight, rather than texture or temperature.”

Ramirez...Maggie nodded. “How’d my repair hold up?”

“They did good.” Up until the moment stark blew the arm off. He didn’t say it. “The stab wound healed up nicely as well. No infection or problems.”

“That’s good. I’m glad.” She hesitated.

Ahh, okay, here it comes.

“How are your pain levels now that you aren’t dragging that thing around?” She practically spat.

The anger and bitterness she said it with him took him aback. She knew what they’d done to him, she’d seen it in Hydra’s files. He knew that she knew, and now knowing what he knew about her, it shouldn’t surprise him that she’d be angry about that particular detail of his medical history. And yet the vitriol she’d compressed into a single syllable was shocking.

Of all the things to ask, all the personal, probing questions, she asks about my pain level. It was

“Better. Much better.” He answered, honestly. “Whatever they did to me gave me back and shoulder problems, but now that the weight isn’t there anymore, it hurts far less.”

She winced, but nodded, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Good. That’s really all that matters.”

Bucky hesitated, “you didn’t tell Steve or Romanoff about what you found, did you? Medically I mean.”

“I didn’t. It felt invasive and not at all related to trying to find you. I wrote out what I knew so you’d know, but I figured you’d tell Steve, Nat, or whoever what you wanted them to know when you had a chance to make that decision for yourself.” She paused, glancing up at him. “Plus, between you and me, Steve was looking like a kicked puppy as it was. I didn’t want to personally contribute to any of that.”

Bucky nodded, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Why? What happened?” She asked, her eyes searching his expression.

“He uhhh, had some particular prosthesis related questions, shortly after it was blown off by Stark,” He admitted, feeling as if he was snitching on the other man. Still, she’d asked a completely fair and honest question, and so he’d give her an equally straightforward answer.

“Oh. Sorry. I guess I should’ve given him the talk.” Ramirez admitted sheepishly.

“The talk?” He echoed.

“Yeah, The talk. That it’s generally not polite to ask how you lost it, did it hurt, and are you getting another one. It’s a lot like asking veterans if they’d killed anyone.”

“Yeah. That’s a stupid question.”

“Yeah, it is.” She nodded, trailing off as she glanced back toward the case. “Better living through technology.” She scoffed, shaking her head. “I saw some of what they did to you, and I can only imagine the type of pain you were in hauling that horrible piece of tech around with you. After all that, I imagine you have a variety of reasons to not want a prosthesis.” Ram-Maggie glanced up at him. “But it’s none of my business to ask, nor are you obligated, required, or expected to give me, Steve, or anyone else your reasoning. In the same way that you’re not obligated, required, or expected to explain why you might want one again. But, as I said before, I’m not ignoring your disability. I am aware you’re missing a limb and that it wasn’t a particularly pleasant situation for you either time. I just want to give you the dignity of choice.”

Choice. He could feel a lump form in his throat at the very idea. Choice. “Thank you...Thank you, Maggie.” He managed after a moment.

For what? She was going to say.

 “It really is you I should be thanking, Bucky Barnes.”

“For what?” He spluttered before he could stop himself.

“You’ve been incredibly gracious and forgiving when you really have no reason to be as far as how much information I have on you rattling around in my head. Never mind in relation to what I did, or a didn’t share with your various significant others.”

He hesitated. Had he been gracious and forgiving? He’d sort of resigned himself to the fact that there were people out there who knew more about him and what had happened to him than he did. The fact that Ramirez...Maggie had been conscientious about how his information had been collected, stored, and disseminated had been surprising, and he hadn’t given it much thought this way or that.

“You did the best you could in a shitty situation and were very thoughtful in how you tried to regulate and protect my information. That’s really all I could ask.”

She nodded shyly. “I do my best.”

But her best, Bucky couldn’t help but observe, was far and away better than any of them would’ve managed. She’d carried all that information around in her head and hadn’t told anyone else. Furthermore, she’d handed over all that information the moment they’d come into proximity and had given him complete and total control of the ways that they discussed that information. He wasn’t sure he could exercise the same amount of self-control, or that he was deserving of such a display of kind thoughtfulness after everything that had happened to her because of him.

“Are we ready to go to the next exhibit?” She asked brightly.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Can I see the map?”

“Sure.” She said, their fingertips brushing as she passed it to him.

They made eye contact a moment, and Maggie cracked a small smile, the tips of her ears going pink. “Thanks,” He mumbled as he broke her gaze and looked down at the paper map. It was all a show, of course, he knew what he was looking for, but he couldn't tell her that.

“No problem.” She cleared her throat. “So what are you thinking? I’m open to anything, now that we’ve gotten through most of the Wakandan technology and engineering.” She commented as she craned her neck to look over his shoulder at the map.

“The Princess mentioned a planetarium," Bucky answered his eyes, scanning the now very crumpled paper.

“Oh. Yeah. I was looking for that.” She said brightly.

“Would you like to go there next?” He glanced up at her. 

“Yeah. Sure. I mean. I mean, if you want.” Maggie stammered.

“Then let’s go.” He mentioned with his head.

“Okay.” She nodded, “I follow your lead.”

“That could be dangerous.” He commented wryly as they started the winding path through the museum. “I could step on your toes.”

Maggie chuckled. “Well, luckily for you, I’m wearing boots.”

“Well, with any luck, that won’t be necessary.” He commented as they came to the planetarium. Grabbing the door, he held it open for her and filed in after. Blinking as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he watched her closely as they entered the darkened space, her face tilting upward, expression transforming in wonder.

She sighed, almost wistfully, releasing the tension in her shoulders.

It was a remarkable change. Watching as she walked into the center of the room, Bucky couldn't help but notice the smile that spread across her face. “We can change the coordinates if you’d like.” He said in low tones after a moment, almost sad to break the silence and draw her attention away from the display above.

Her head snapped to where he was standing, eyes wide. “Really? I mean, you think they’d let us?”

“The Princess gave me the access code to the controls. So I’m pretty sure.” He said.

"I mean. If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” Bucky shook his head.

Without further prompting, she bounded over to the controls, turning to watch as he trailed behind.   He typed in the authorization and stepped aside so she could type in the new coordinates. Glancing up, he watched as the stars shifted, before watching as she drifted to the center of the room, her neck craned, looking up.

Standing there a moment, she sunk to the floor, a grin spread across her lips and her pure delight filling every inch of her face. “Join me?” She asked, turning her head only momentarily to meet his gaze.

“Sure.” He replied, walking over to where she was sitting and sat down to her left, and watched as she leaned back on the floor, her face illuminated in the dim light of the display.

“Do you know them?” He asked, watching as she gazed upward.

“Some.” She answered, eyes scanning the fake night sky. “There.” She pointed. “That’s Ursa Major.”

Bucky followed where she was pointing. “I don’t see it.” He said, squinting.

“You’re going to have to layback to see where I’m pointing.”

He looked down at her, his brain working to come up with some sort of witty comeback, but faltered at the earnest expression on her face. “Alright,” Bucky said, as he lay down on the floor beside her, shoulder to shoulder. “Show me.”

“There.” She motioned with her pointer finger. “That cluster of stars. That’s the Ursa Major.”

“Uh, Huh.” Bucky nodded.

“And then there is Leo Minor and Leo major.” She made a motion with her pointer finger.

“Right.”

Maggie glanced over at him, “You still have no idea what I’m talking about.” It was an absolute statement of fact.

“Correct.”

“You mean to tell me that you’ve never star gazed, James Barnes?” She asked, total disbelief in her voice.

“Can’t say that I have.” He paused.

Liar.

He’d star gazed with Steve when they were out in the field with the howling commandos, too wired to sleep. So they’d just held hands and watched the night sky, ears trained for the enemy. Then there had also been a few times he could remember, when he was the Soldier, looking up at the sky on clear moonless nights with Nat while on a mission, where they’d been taken, if only momentarily, by the beauty of the night sky. It had been a very long time since he’d just looked up at the sky just to look up.

“I know the North Star. But that was mostly for navigation, in the era before GPS and satellites.”

She gave a small nod, “Give me your hand. ” She said so softly that Bucky was almost sure that he’d imagined it.

“What?” He stammered.

“I wanna show you.” Maggie motioned with her chin up toward the ceiling.

“All right.” He extended his hand to her.

Gently she wrapped her thumb, middle, ring, and pinky finger around his right wrist, doing her best to align her pointer finger with his, “All right, bear with me a moment.” She said, adjusting her position where she was pressed flush against him. “Comfortable?” She looked over at him with a small smile.

“As much as anyone can be laying on the ground.” He answered with a wry smile.

“Okay. Well. Let me show you.” She chuckled, the noise was small but hummed in her chest, and the vibrations spread into his own.

Clearing her throat, she began, using their pointer fingers like a sight and very carefully traced each constellation in the hemisphere, only pausing to ask if he could see it, or if he had questions. Bucky could, of course, see each of the constellations, but he found he was far more interested in how her face seemed to positively glow as she spoke in the dim light talking about what each star formation was, and what time of the year they could be best seen.

“What?”

“Huh?” He stammered, her voice pulling him back.

“You’re starring. Where did I lose you?” She asked.

“Oh. No. You didn’t.” He shook his head. “It’s just.” He faltered.

“What?”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

“Oh.” She breathed as if relived that was his question. “West Texas is nothing but flat and dry, which means a lot of open sky. That and my family used to go out to the McDonald’s observatory in the Davis Mountains when I was little. My brother loved it. He’d drag me out of bed in the early hours of dawn to watch meteor showers.”

“Your brother Antonio.”

“Yeah, Toni.” She nodded. “Before Toni died, we used to go camping for two weeks every Christmas break and just sit out under the stars by the fire. Toni knew all the constellations and where the planets were depending on the time of year.” Ramirez shook her head. “God, it’s been forever since I’ve thought about those camping trips.”

Her brother, during his research, Bucky, had read that he’d died when she was ten. He’d never figured out what had happened, but he could imagine it had been traumatic. Bucky could tell just by the way she talked about him the admiration and love that she still felt for him, all these years later. Was that how Becca had talked about him? “What happened to him?” The question slipped out before he could stop it, and he winced.

“It’s okay. It was a long time ago.” She said slowly. “He was killed in a freak accident. Trying to break a horse,” She said. It was all fact, not a hint of emotion in her voice. “He was seventeen and my hero, I guess in the way big brothers normally are. Now that I think back on it, he never should’ve been allowed to get up on that horse, but my dad and granddad thought he was ready and so they let him. I was sitting by the fence, watching when it happened. The horse threw him, and when he hit the ground...” Maggie winced, shaking her head. “I knew immediately what had happened. I tried to get into the enclosure, but my Aunt Gloria dragged me into the house. They were trying to protect me. They didn’t want me to see the body. But I just remember screaming Toni’s name.” She paused, trying to swallow the lump in her throat. “The other day, when I was thrown, it brought what happened to Toni back. After that happened to him, I didn't‏ go near horses or any of it for years.” She chuckled weakly. “So. Uhh. I can positively say that neither of us was having a good day the other day.”

“Yeah. I think that’s an accurate summary.” Bucky nodded, silently astounded.

She trusts me. He realized. She trusted him not only to not hurt her as they lay here in the dark but also enough to tell him something that had obviously been and was still in many ways very painful for her.  

Bucky paused glancing down, he found that she was still holding onto his wrist. She didn’t have a tight grip, he could’ve easily pulled away. What surprised him was that he didn’t mind and was actually savoring the contact between them. Her hand was calloused, but her grip was gentle. Did she realize she was still holding onto his wrist? Or had his question taken her far beyond the fake night sky.

“I think we should do a re-do.”

“Re-do?” She echoed.

“Well, you said it yourself. Neither of us was having a good day last time we had dinner and a movie. Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, and by my count, New Year's Eve. If you don’t have any other plans, I’d like to make dinner for you.”

Maggie turned her head to him, cracking a small, nearly fragile smile. “I’d like that, Bucky.”

Bucky looked back up at the ceiling, and at the starry scene swirling over him. A year ago, he’d been in Romania, hauling cinderblocks up the stairs. A year ago, he’d discovered she was alive when he’d seen her in the photograph in his youngest sister’s obituary. A year ago, he was on the run, alone, and in pain, and had been content to be so. He’d had no idea what awaited him, or what he was going to endure. In a thousand years, he never would’ve imagined he would be laying side by side with the woman whose life he’d so completely and utterly ruined, stargazing and talking about having dinner.

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. It was inappropriate and stupid, and she’d probably roll her eyes at him, but it was to good an opportunity to pass up. “Well then,” He said slowly, turning his head to meet her gaze. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Sure enough, she rolled her eyes, pulling her hand away to brush hair out of her face, but her smile widened as she shook her head. “You’re a cheeseball, Barnes.” Maggie chuckled as she pushed herself into a seated position. “But thank you.”

“For being a cheeseball?” He raised an eyebrow as he sat up beside her.

 “Getting the access codes from The Princess. Listening to me ramble on about my childhood, my dead brother, and the stars.” She replied.

Bucky paused. “For being a friend?” He offered after a moment.

“Yeah. For being my friend.” She agreed. “Now come on. We have the rest of the museum to see, and items for dinner to acquire.” She rose to her feet and extended her hand to him.

He took it, and she helped him to his feet. They changed the coordinates back and left the planetarium in silence. Following her blinking out into the comparatively bright light of the museum, Bucky trailed behind her as she led them from room to room, chatting excitedly about each of the exhibits.

If this was a sign of things to come, and Bucky hoped they were, 2017 was going to be a much better year than 2016. That was something to celebrate, and he was going to celebrate it with a friend. He was going to celebrate with her.

Chapter Text

He couldn ’t hear the words, but he knew they were those words. He could feel himself being pushed away and being replaced by something else, by the soldier. He tried to hold on, tried to fight it. “Your name is James Barnes. Your father’s name is George. Your mother’s name...your mother’s name is...” The information was there, but it was blocked, shoved away, useless, obsolete.

Soldier?”

Ready to comply.” He heard himself say the words, but it felt far away and warbled like he was underwater, trapped, drowning.

He was in the house again, Maggie ’s house. They were alone. Her dark eyes were wide with terror, an unfamiliar, foreign expression on her usually calm features. “Bucky...Bucky, this isn’t you.” She said, her voice shaking, her hands out as she backed away from him. It was a feeble attempt at self-defense, certainly no match for the soldier…for the asset.

He raised his gun. ‘Run! Run!’ He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t.

It wouldn’t have helped. Maggie didn ’t have time to react. No time to scream, no time to run, no time to plead or beg as he unloaded the magazine into her chest and as she crumpled to the floor, blood pooling around her. Her shaking hands moved to the bullet wounds, which blossomed like bright flowers, and attempted to staunch the bleeding. But it would be no use, not against the solider, not when there were so many of them.

He...the soldier...stepped forward, placing his boot on her chest, forcing her all the way to the floor.

Maggie put her blood-stained hands on the boot and pushed ineffectually against it, too weak to put up much of a fight. Bucky wanted to look away, wanted to stop, but he couldn ’t. He watched, unable to stop the horror of what happening.

Her eyes stared up at him, there wasn ’t anger or even fear in her eyes, but an overwhelming sadness. Then, just as he raised his gun, he found that he could move again.

"Maggie.” His voice was his own now, but nearly drowned out by the thudding of his pulse in his ears.“Maggie. Oh God. Maggie, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He fell to his knees beside her, scooping up her in his arms, trying to stem the bleeding, but there was blood everywhere, there was no way to stop it.

It’s okay, Bucky,” She said, her hands slick with blood pushed his hand away.“It’s okay, let me go. It’s okay.”

Maggie. No. No. Please.” He begged, his voice no more than a hoarse whisper. He cradled her head, watching helplessly as she slipped away, only vaguely aware of the tears streaming down his face.

You killed her, Barnes.”

He looked up to see Wilson walking toward him. “After all she did for you.”

"Wilson...I....” Words failed him as the shadow of Steve loomed over them. “Steve...I...I tried to stop...” Bucky looked up into the face of his friend and found anger on Steve’s face.

You said you weren’t going to kill anyone.”

I didn’t mean—I couldn’t.”

Who am I talking to? My friend? Or the Winter Soldier?” Steve stepped closer, “You did this! You killed her!”

You killed her," Wilson repeated.

He looked down into Maggie’ s face as their voices echoed and bounced around the room, and mixed with the screams of all of the Winter Soldier’s victims. His victims.

‘No. It wasn ’t me. I didn’t want to.’ He would’ve screamed, but no one would listen, and he didn’t deserve their pity, their justice, their forgiveness.

            No.

                          No.

No.

Bucky jolted awake, drenched in sweat, breathing heavy. His whole body shaking.

“You’re in Wakanda, You’re safe, they can’t touch you. You’re safe. Maggie’s safe. Steve and Wilson, and Natasha, they’re safe. Hydra can’t make you them kill. Hydra can’t make you hurt anyone. Hydra can’t hurt you anymore.” He breathed, trying to ground himself.

He squeezed his eyes shut as the hut’s walls started to spin. He could hear their screams, their pleading. He could see their faces reaching out to him from the darkness behind his eyes. He clenched his jaw as his chest constricted.

He sucked in a breath, but the air was warm and stale as the walls moved closer in around him.

Coughing, he staggered to his feet and lurched outside into the night.

I couldn’t stop it. I was there, I was in there, and I couldn’t stop it. He could feel his whole body shaking.

He’d killed her, he’d killed her, and he hadn’t been able to stop it.      

“The Princess got the programming out, she got it out, she got it all out, they can’t touch you.” He whispered over and over.

But what if she hadn’t. What if she hadn’t, and they come for you. They’ll come for you and trigger you again, they’ll make you kill her and Steve and Sam and T’Challa and The Princess and anyone and everyone who might stand in their way, and you won’t be able to stop it.

Bucky could feel himself shaking as his thoughts raced. Both his body and his mind were working against him. He needed to move, needed to get out of his head.

He started walking. He walked and walked, not really minding where he was going, letting his feet guide him, his mind still racing.

It was only a dream.

He repeated that fact, repeated it over and over, hoping that with enough repetition, it might feel like it was only a dream.

It had felt real. For him, it had felt real, too real. Because for 70 years it had been real. That had been his job, his mission, his entire purpose. He’d killed people, a lot of people, not just like that but close enough. Too close for comfort.

“Fuck.” He breathed.

He remembered them all, he could see them all, only now Maggie was among them.

That wasn’t new. He’d lived in the belief that he’d killed her for over a year. And when he’d been remembering, recovering everything that he’d lost and forgotten, she’d been amongst the fallen, amongst those killed by Hydra, killed by him.

But then she hadn’t been dead, and in fact, had been trying to hunt him down. And then she’d come to Wakanda and had told him that she didn’t blame him for what had happened. It hadn’t been absolution. It had been understanding.

Only then they’d started talking about his sister, and then spending time with one another, now it had evolved into something else. It had evolved into a friendship. It had become something normal, something constant, something separate from what his life had been to something that his life could be.

It had been nearly a month and a half since the museum and New Year's Eve, and during that time, they’d been seen a lot more of one another.

They’d zoomed through the next twenty films on the hundred greatest list. Slipping a few films here and there not from the list. Science fiction mostly, but it had been fun for him to see her suggestions and input. Beyond just seeing more of one another, she’d been staying the night on their movie nights. It just made the most sense for her to stay until morning to avoid anyone having to walk in the dark.

Unfortunately, while a lot had been good, with it had come some bad. This dream wasn’t the first time of it’s particular kind. He’d started having them around the same time that she’d started staying over.

At first, the dreams had focused around him frightening or even accidentally harming her. He hadn’t told her. He’d wanted to. But to what end? He’d wondered. Then there had been an escalation...to…well…to this.

How could he have been so stupid? How had he managed to delude himself into thinking that this whole thing wouldn’t come back and bite him in the ass? Was it ignorance, naivety, stupidity, or had he really thought that he could ignore what he was? That he should let her ignore what he was. Ignore the truth. That he was not just dangerous but a danger to her.

Bucky faltered as his brain finally realized where his feet had led him.

“Damn it.” He muttered. He was no more than 100 yards from her front door.

His feet had guided him along to her house, as they had now almost three years ago. Right to her doorstep, to dump his problems on her.

You’re already here. What’s a little further? His brain coaxed and he wanted to listen. She’d want to know about this, she has a right to know.

He wanted to go up and knock on her door. He wanted to wake her, just to know she was okay. If just to hear her voice.

What would he say when he did he wake her? ‘Hi, sorry, had a bad dream about brutally murdering you in your home. You know the one that Hydra burned to the ground after they tortured you for harboring me in your barn and nursing me back to health?’

It wouldn’t be a welcome wake up call.

It was only a dream.

He clung to the fact. It wasn’t real. The whole thing had been his brain doing stupid shit to him. Yet despite that knowledge, for him, it had felt real, so real. He’d watched her die.

She would want to know.

Yeah, she would. She’d sit there and listen and nod along with those large dark eyes, and that kind mouth and gentle expression, and she’d tell him what he already knew. It was only a dream. It was just a dream and that it wasn’t anything to worry too terribly much about. Then she’d spread a blanket out for them and would lay beside him until he fell back asleep under the night sky.

That’s what would happen, he knew that and wanted that. In fact, he craved it down to the very fiber of his being.

No. You can’t do that to her. You know what you have to do.

Would she see it that way? Would she understand?

Does it matter?

Well, of course, it mattered. Despite himself, despite all better judgment, and all good reason, he cared for Maggie, and he cared what she thought, and he didn’t want to hurt her.

Fuck. Damn it. He took a faltering step toward her house and stopped. I can’t do this to her, not right now, not at this hour. He turned and rubbed his face before turning back toward her hut. His resolve wavering moment to moment, breath to breath.

It was Tuesday, or it was going to be. He could do it during his usual feed delivery. He was supposed to see her then anyway. It would be better than waking her up in the middle of the night, and it gave him more time to figure out what he was going to say.

But he wanted to talk to her now. It wouldn’t make everything better. Nothing could make everything feel better, but Bucky had the distinct feeling that Maggie could help him make sense of everything.

He couldn’t do that to her either. That wasn’t her job, it wasn’t her responsibility, and it, in fact, went against everything that he knew he had to do.

Bucky could feel his shoulders sag at the thought, at the idea of being alone yet again, but it felt selfish to do any differently. To knowingly and willingly put her in harm’s way just because he was bored or lonely, or whatever.

He turned away from her hut and started the long walk back to his village. It was longer and far more fraught as he argued with himself and stumbled over the rocky terrain he traversed.

He couldn’t get her anymore involved with him than she already was. And he knew he would have to find a way to divest himself from the situation. Remove himself before he hurt her before he hurt all of them.

Wasn’t this why you went under? Why you let The Princess root around in your brain? So you wouldn’t have to be worried about all of this?

That was the case. Bucky knew that was the case. That he shouldn’t be worried about this anymore. They’d fixed this problem. He wasn’t Hydra’s tool.

But that’s untested, we won’t know unless it happens again. He couldn’t help but fixate on that particular fact.

When he made it back to his hut, he couldn’t bring himself to sit inside. The air still felt hot and sticky in his lungs. Instead, he sunk down on one of the logs outside and worked to rebuild the cooking fire.

The smoke stung his eyes, and he could feel as they watered. He blinked furiously but refused to wipe at his face as his tears started to stream.

This isn’t fair. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

He wanted to scream, but it had never been fair, hadn’t been fair for a long, long time.

So Bucky sat outside, working the fire into cooking coals, and watched as the sun came up, steeling his resolve for what he knew he had to do.

Then, when it was time, he made and ate breakfast, went and dressed, and started his day.

This is the right thing to do, she’ll understand. He repeated to himself, over and over, hoping that if he said it enough, it would be true. That if he repeated it enough, he might even believe it himself.

An almost calm had washed over him, as he guided Sally and the cart along their usual path for the feed delivery. The routine and familiarity were comforting. He was in control of himself. He could do what was necessary to protect his friends. To protect her.

Turning the last corner toward Jelani’s village, Bucky spotted her. Sitting as usual under the large trees, reading one of her books. A trashy paperback romance novel, no doubt. She looked perfectly at ease, content with herself and the world around her, unaware of the walking shit storm about to hit her.

Maybe I can get in and out of the village without her noticing.

Now he was being a coward. Now he was afraid to face her.

If you’re going to put her through this, you need to at least have the decency to explain what’s going on.

He walked past their usual meeting spot and toward the storage shed, where he dropped off the usual feed order.

He would do this, it would just be after he finished his work, so he could make a quick break for it after he told her.

“Hey, Bucky!”

Or Not.

He had to stop himself from wincing as her voice broke the silence, echoing across the yard to greet him.

“Bucky! Wait! We can do that after lunch!”

He could hear her scrabble to her feet and rush to follow him. He stopped, turned, and watched as she approached, confusion wrinkling her brow.

“I can’t stay.” His voice came out low and gruff and harsher than he’d meant and he watched as her steps faltered, her eyes searching him.

“Oh. Okay.” She said voice tinged in uncertainty as if she was testing her weight on a frozen pond. “Well, do you wanna do another movie on our list sometime this week?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

She paused, again allowing time to survey him with a careful and thoughtful expression. “What’s going on, Bucky?”

“Nothing. It just...It just isn’t a good idea for us to spend time together.”

“What happened?” She pressed on.

“Nothing happened.” He practically choked on the last word as he felt his throat tighten around the syllables.

Maggie nodded quickly, chewing on the corner of her mouth.

She didn’t buy it for a moment, and she was going to call him on it, push him, force him to confess.

“If I’ve done something, you know you can tell me, right?” Her voice was small as she said it. “If-I mean-I know-”

“It wasn’t you.” He cut her off. “It’s...I’m...” He stammered his resolve wavering. “I’m dangerous.” Bucky managed shortly. “I thought I was responsible for your death once. I won’t put you in harm's way again.”

Maggie nodded slowly. “I understand.” She stopped, her expression smoothing a moment, and she cleared her throat. “Before I go any further. I have to say, this is therapist Maggie speaking, not your friend Maggie.”

“Okay.”

“Are you having thoughts of harming yourself or others?”

That, of course, had been her first thought. Yourself or others. Not, ‘do you want to hurt me?’ She was trying to decide how to react, trying to figure out how best to respond for his sake, she wasn’t thinking about herself

“No. No.” He shook his head. Bucky took a deep breath. What was he supposed to say? No. He wasn’t thinking of harming himself or others. He was grappling with the reality that he might be forced to harm himself or others. What would she say to that? There was only one way to find out. “I had a dream.” Bucky began slowly. “I had a dream that Hydra triggered me and that they made me kill you.”

It sounded stupid, even as he said it, and Bucky waited for her to laugh at him.

“Oh.” She said. It was a short little sound, with tremendous heft.

She was going to tell him that it was just a dream or that he was being ridiculous. She wouldn’t be wrong, he was being ridiculous, it was only a dream, and yet he wasn’t sure what he would if she told him so. He wasn’t sure what he wanted her to say, only that he wanted her to say something.

“I can understand why that would be upsetting and why you’re shaken.” Maggie continued after a moment. “You’ve been through a lot, you’re still processing, it makes sense since we’ve been around one another with some frequency that your mind would latch on to me while working through what you’re dealing with.”

Bucky stared. That’s it? That’s all she’s going to say? It took absolutely everything he had for him to not unhinge his jaw and drop it on the ground. “You’re taking all of this pretty well.” He examined her critically.

“You are talking to the dame who lied to the cops and performed light surgery on the Winter Soldier. My threshold for fucked up is a little bit out of whack.” She laughed weakly.

Bucky knew it wasn’t a joke. What was worse was that Maggie was being honest. And unfortunately, he agreed. Her “threshold for fucked up” was well, frankly that, fucked up. That was the problem, and it seemed like she didn’t realize that it was a problem. Furthermore, Bucky knew he couldn’t let her use that as an excuse or a reason to allow him to endanger her. He wouldn’t.

“So what? You want to continue on like I’m not a health hazard?” He bit out, each syllable hard and sharp and brittle.

She didn’t flinch, didn’t pull away or look hurt. Instead, she just shook her head before glancing up to meet his gaze. “That’s not up to me. That’s something you’re going to have to work out.” She paused. “Have you thought about talking to a therapist?” He froze, uncertain of where this was going or what he could do to stop her on the course she was headed. Unaware of this, Maggie charged on, “someone who isn’t me who can help you talk through some of these things. I mean, I can do it. If you want me to, it would just mean I can’t be your friend. A professional thing, being able to keep myself out of it to help you work through some of this stuff.”

“I understand.” He said, almost automatically, before the meaning, the actual meaning of her words sunk in. “Wait. What? You’d be willing to give up our friendship to be my therapist?”

“If you wanted. Frankly, I’m not sure I’m qualified, but if you asked me to, I would.”

Bucky didn’t know what to say. What could he say to that?

“You don’t have to decide right now. But you shouldn’t force yourself muddle through this all alone.”

He nodded.

“Now, I’ll help you offload the feed so you can be on your way.” She said lightly, but there wasn’t a smile on her face or a bright glint in her eyes. A weight had settled on her shoulders and expression, and she moved as if every motion was laborious.

Yet she said nothing, and Bucky was content to work in silence. It was better than trying to find something to say. When they finished, they paused, looking one another over, waiting for the other person to say something, anything.

Maggie broke first. “Well, I’m around if you need anything.” She paused, cringing as she shook her head. “I really don’t like the idea of you being alone.”

It’s better this way, safer this way. This was true, of course, but he could already feel the dread pooling in his stomach at the thought of being trapped inside his own head.

That ’s not her problem. It’s yours, and you’ll deal with it.

“I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be fine.”

She nodded. “All right, I’ll see you around then.”

“I’ll see you around then,” he echoed.

Bucky watched as she walked away, back to where she’d been eating lunch. No tears, no gnashing of teeth, just a simple set of very pointed questions, and an almost numb acceptance.

You’re doing the right thing. He repeated to himself over and over.

So why didn’t it feel that way?

Bucky didn’t know, and so instead he focused on putting one foot in front of the other, and taking one deep breath in and exhaling one breath out, all the way to the next village, and the next village until he could go back to his hut and collapse into bed.

 

-

 

Maggie watched as he went, shock, denial, and then a sort of numbness watching over her.

He’d had a dream that Hydra had forced him to kill her.

She could understand why he wanted to push her away.

Maggie could still remember the dreams she’d had with the Winter Soldier present, the ones where Hydra had tortured her, and he’d stood by and watched. She’d almost told him. She’d wanted to tell him, but she’d hesitated. What good would it have done? To what end and effect? She didn’t know, and so she hadn’t said anything.

Maybe he was right. Perhaps he was dangerous, and distance was the best, but that didn’t feel right, not after everything she’d seen.

He was capable of great violence, but also tremendous kindness and gentleness. Never once in his presence, since she’d come to Wakanda, not even when she’d been patching him up after the whole instance with the goat had she felt like she was in danger.

Maggie sat on the blanket, feeling somehow like she’d done something wrong. Like she should chase him down and say something, tell him he was being a self-loathing moron. That he shouldn’t isolate himself. But that wasn’t her place.

You basically just got “it’s not you it’s me-ed."

So she had, and it was his right. She’d said so herself. Friendship was a moment by moment exercise in consent. He had a right to say he didn’t want to see her again, and she had a right to go sit down and cry somewhere.

“Heyi, Cowgirl! Where is White Wolf?” Jelani inquired as he walked by.

“He’s come and gone, had something to take care of, and couldn’t stay for lunch.” She explained, perhaps a little too quickly.

Jelani nodded. “Take the rest of the day. Stretch your legs, take a ride to the western ridge.”

Was it that obvious? That she was upset? She didn’t know, but opened her mouth to protest.

“That wasn’t a suggestion, Cowgirl. Go.”

“Okay, okay.” She said, putting her hands up in surrender.

“Good.”

Maggie rose, collecting her things. She’d go to her hut and grab some stuff. Water, food, treats for Skywalker, and her journal and a few pens. She’d have to take her own advice and do a bit of journaling. She didn’t need all of this in her head, not when she needed her head firmly planted on her shoulders, and her brain solidly between her ears.

I can’t believe you offered to be his therapist.

It was a bad idea, she knew it was a bad idea, but now it was a bad idea that had been planted in the man’s brain.

What if he says yes? What if he prefers you as his therapist than as his friend?

Maggie wasn’t sure if she could handle that. Her only point of consistent social interaction transforming into another business transaction. Perhaps that was all she was to him, maybe that was all she’d ever been to him.

Well, you’ll soon find out soon enough.

Yet she couldn’t get that look of terror in his eyes. That raw fear, and that near animalistic expression as if her proximity was a threat to him. He might not think twice about completely isolating himself and rejecting both her friendship and her offer to try to help him process some of his shit.

Maggie shook her head, adjusting the saddle straps and double-checking the saddlebag. There literally wasn’t anything she could do. She couldn’t help Barnes if he didn’t want her to. So there was nothing to be gained by sitting around obsessing over the what ifs of the thing.

A good ride would help clear her head. It would certainly give her a good work out, and beyond that, it was something to do that didn’t involve prying eyes and even more prying questions.

Mounting Skywalker, she urged him into a trot and pointed him toward the western ridge and started off to try to make some sense of the muddled world currently transpiring around her.

 

-

 

While he’d tried to bend all of his focus around his breathing and walking, by the time Bucky made it back to the village, he felt on the verge of a panic attack.

He’d done everything right, hadn’t he? He’d told her what he was doing and why. He hadn’t done anything wrong, hadn't just all of a sudden served all communications and contact between them.

She hadn’t been upset or hadn’t seemed to be. She’d been, if anything, concerned for him. That made everything worse.

She offered to forego friendship so she could help you, to help you sort through all this... all this shit.

What did that mean?

Well, it meant what it meant, and what it meant was that he had a decision to make.

No!

Bucky shook his head. No. That wasn’t it at all. He’d made his decision, that decision was to get her out of his life. His decision was to protect her, by removing himself so that he didn’t hurt her when inevitably this went sideways.

Yet it had been like she’d completely ignored that part like she’d jumped from ‘I need you out of my life for your protection’ to ‘Therapist or Friend?’

Damn it, Maggie.

How did she always manage that? How could she possibly be so ignorant that she was still willing to put herself in danger when she knew, she KNEW what he was capable of.

It was almost too much for him to bear.

My threshold for fucked up is a little out of whack.

No shit. Bucky would’ve laughed if not for the very truth of the thing. And he froze at the sound of approaching footsteps, near the barn where Bucky was returning Sally and the cart.

“You’re back early., Omondi commented brightly as he entered Bucky’s periphery.

He nodded. The old man was fishing, if word hadn’t already spread from Jelani’s village, it soon would.

“Well, since you’re back, come play a game with me and some of the others. You’ll enjoy it.”

“No, thank you. Perhaps another time.” He answered as politely as he could manage.

“Indeed," Omondi said flatly, giving him a once over he nodded, before returning wordlessly the way he’d come.

What was that all about?

If Jelani had said something, if Maggie had said something to Jelani who’d then relayed it on to Omondi, Bucky would’ve expected more of a push, more persistence. Instead, the old man had simply left him alone. Perhaps he was simply curious, and the question had been harmless. At the very least it felt harmless. 

Perhaps she hadn’t said anything, maybe no one other than the two of them knew what had transpired. Maybe, just maybe, he’d actually be left alone.

After he finished his chores, Bucky returned wordlessly to his hut. Flipping open his journal, he started writing as a stream of words flowed from his pen. As all of the foggy thoughts, and feelings, and words sprang forth, practically fully formed and landed on the page. He tried to ignore how his stomach twinged, or how his whole body felt like it was shaking, making his handwriting jittery and erratic.

Bucky knew he wasn’t calm, cool, or collected, and he couldn’t fathom how Maggie had managed to maintain that when they’d been talking. He was scared. He was scared of what he could do, of what he was capable of. But perhaps what was most frightening was that she knew, knew who he was, what he’d done, and didn’t seem to care, didn’t seem to grasp that he was a danger to her.

Steve, Wilson, Natasha, T’Challa, and The Dora, they were all enhanced or highly trained and capable of defending themselves. He wasn’t a threat to them. They could take him down if necessary.

Maggie...Ramirez...she was vulnerable.

He squeezed his aching eyes shut. He could still see her, see her staring up at him, wide but unafraid when he’d...as he’d...he couldn’t even think it.

It had only been a dream.

But could he risk it?

And what about all of the others for whom that hadn’t been a dream? All the others that had died at the hand of the Winter Soldier. Sure, that had all been coerced action, he hadn’t had a choice, he hadn’t wanted to do any of it. Yet, those people were still dead, regardless of his intention, regardless of anything he might have meant or not meant. It really didn’t matter if he’d meant to do any of it.

Bucky exhaled a strangled sigh. Setting down the pen a moment, he rubbed at his stinging eyes. He wanted to talk to Natasha. She would have something novel and insightful to say. She knew what he was, really knew. She’d been there, in Hydra, when he’d been the Winter Soldier. She’d been able to see him for what he was and give him the answers he needed to hear.

But he couldn’t get ahold of her. Trying to get in touch with Steve would be difficult enough, but it would raise serious alarms if he reached out to Natasha.

Besides, he didn’t want anyone to worry about him, not when they were out in the field. Not when they had so much to concern themselves with without him adding his shit to the pile. No. He’d have to deal with this on his own.

Exactly like Maggie was worried, you would.

Bucky shook his head, picking up his pen back up. That didn’t matter. None of that mattered. There was no decision to be made, no odds to be weighed, no choices. She didn’t deserve this, didn’t deserve being stranded here in Wakanda with him, didn’t deserve having her life destroyed because of him. Didn’t deserve to die because she’d extended the hand of friendship, and like a hopeful, stupid idiot, he’d accepted it without a second thought of his true nature.

Twilight eventually set in around him, signaling the end of yet another day, and Bucky knew he was on his own. And although he might not like it, this was what was best for everyone. 

 

-

 

Maggie rode and rode, and then when she’d reached the western ridge, sat and journaled for a good hour. It had been a long, long time since she’d written anything for herself, and the words came in long, slow, frustrated, bursts, but as she wrote, she felt less like crying and started feeling more resolved.

Ultimately, she couldn’t do shit. What was worse, perhaps, was that she knew she couldn’t do shit. It was no one's fault. This was something that Bucky was going to have to sort through. Maggie only wished that he wasn’t doing it alone.

Not that she wasn’t the poster child for just absolutely clamming up and refusing to address her own mental health. In fact, Barnes had been an excellent distraction from her own problems for a while now.

Maggie sighed, looking up at the long horizon stretched out before her. It was a vast sea of green as far as the eye could see. The grass was so green it almost shone blue under the sunlight, and looking over the fast empty openness, Maggie couldn’t help but feel small. Small and alone and insignificant. She felt like a feather being tossed around in a hurricane. Fragile and helpless, and at the mercy of forces beyond her control.

She took a deep breath, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes, trying to relieve some of the pressure that had started to build behind them.

“Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” She murmured to the empty grassland before her, repeating it over and over like a mantra.

That was the first rule of being a therapist, being a first responder, activist, whatever. You’re no good to anyone if you’re out of sorts yourself. It was advice that she’d given a hundred times over to her volunteers, and had received a thousand times over from Sam.

What would that even look like in this situation? How am I supposed to put on my own oxygen mask before helping others?

Well, she’d put the ball in Barnes’s court. She hadn’t washed her hands of him, but she also hadn’t immediately jumped into therapist mode, determined to fix his problems, or at the very least determined to make him process his trauma and start to help him address that trauma. She’d told him to decide what he wanted and what he wanted to do but had left it open to him whether or not to pursue any of those options.

But you know he’s just going isolate himself, right?

Of course, she knew that. Just by the way he’d reacted after his nightmare. He was going to push people away. It was a typical reaction to trauma. Self-isolation. Many thought it was easier to go it alone than drag other people along for the ride.

Maggie could certainly understand that. She didn’t condone it but knew it would’ve been absolutely hypocritical if she hadn’t admitted, at least to her self, that she understood where he was coming from.

Okay. So. I should tell someone about this. I should seek out advice. Or at very least get someone who ISN’T me to talk to Barnes.

But who? The Wakandans? She wasn’t entirely sure of the relationship there. Willing to remove Hydra programming? Yes. Willing to provide counseling? Currently unknown. Besides, she wasn’t the one to be asking these questions for Barnes. This was his deal, and he’d have to find his way through it, and right now, it looked like he didn’t want her involved in that, for a variety of reasons.

Should she try to get ahold of Steve? What would she even say to Rogers? Hey! Your friend had an apparently rather graphic dream where he brutally murdered me, and now he won’t talk to me, will you check in on him? Because THAT would go over real well. Not only would it freak out Steve, and possibly endanger the Secret Avengers (or whatever the hell they were calling themselves), it would totally betray Bucky’s trust.

Bucky’s trust?

At this point, that really shouldn’t matter, should it? He was in crisis, she was a therapist, the next course of action was to reach out to the appropriate points of contact in his support network.

With or without his consent? He ’s not suicidal, Mags. He had a bad dream, and it freaked him out. He needed a friend, whether he knows it or not, he doesn’t need to be institutionalized.

“The fuck am I supposed to do then?”

That really was the question then, wasn’t it? The sun had started to set, as Maggie made her way back to the village, puzzling through her predicament the entire way.

Maggie had just nearly reached a solution by the time she’d reached the halfway mark and had the workings of a basic plan by the time that she’d arrived back to the village. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was better than just sitting around with her thumb up her ass, hoping things worked out for the best.

Her mind was racing. There was a risk involved. Risk that her message wouldn’t be well received. That this whole thing could backfire and that everyone involved would either A) hate her, or B) laugh her off as being a reactionary. Regardless, she couldn’t let this just lie. Now, she’d just have to wait for the right moment to ask a favor.

“Heyi, Cowgirl!” Jelani’s voice made her jump, and she looked up to see the man approaching as she tied off Skywalker and started to remove the horse’s tack so she could do a thorough brush down. “Good ride?”

“Yeah.” She nodded.

“Good.”

“Jelani?” Maggie began.

The older man stopped and turned to face her, curiosity dancing on his expression. “Yes?”

“Is there...” She faltered, uncertain if she should continue. If you don’t do it now, you might never get another chance until it’s too late. “Is there any way I could get a message to my friend, Samuel Wilson? Like I did in December?”

The older man frowned, nodding thoughtfully before he spoke. “I don’t know if our King has kept in constant contact with the Captain, and your friend Samuel, but I will see what can be done. Record your message on one of your Kimoyo beads, and I will get it to the appropriate people.”

“Thank you, I appreciate it tremendously.” Maggie smiled weakly.

“Is all well with you and theWhite Wolf?” Jelani inquired, looking her up and down.

“Yes. We’re all well.” She lied. “A little homesick and I miss my friend, I wanted to send him a message.”

Her voice felt pinched and manic, but it was the best she could come up with on the spot.

“Uh, huh.” He nodded voice skeptical as he scratched his chin, combing his fingers through his short beard. “I will get the message to my King.”

“Thank you.”

“I will leave you to it, you will take dinner with me and my family, will you not?”

“I would be honored.”

“Good. Teela had some things for you. I think she wanted to give you a loom.”

“A loom?”

“You mentioned wanting to know how Wakandan fabric was manufactured.”

“Ah.” Maggie chuckled, nodding. “Yes. I will join you and your family for dinner. I look forward to Tee’s instruction.”

“You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into, Cowgirl.”

“No, I suppose I haven’t. What time do you want me over?”

“I’ll send Sisay over when dinner is ready.”

“That sounds good. I’ll see you all then.”

“Yes, we will, Cowgirl.” He waved, continuing about his business and leaving Maggie to hers.

Maggie fell back into her usual rhythm as she worked, and by the time she was done, she had a plan. She was going to get a message to Sam. Make it clear that everyone was fine, but that Bucky needed an ear, from someone who wasn’t her. She wouldn’t mention the dream. That would be difficult to convey over message. Sam would know there was something she wasn’t saying and would be able to translate for Steve. With any luck, Sam would be able to return a message, but Maggie knew well enough not to hold her breath.

This is your plan? Really? Sam doesn ’t deserve ANY of this shit.

Maggie knew that she was asking a lot yet again from Sam. Sam was on the run after fighting half of the avengers and then being locked away on a floating super-max prison because of Bucky because they were going to execute an innocent man. He was there because of Steve. He loved Steve, and he believed in Steve and all that Steve and, for that matter, all that Captain America stood for. She just hoped, when it came down to it, that Sam was looking out for himself.

And now you’re asking him to pass a message along to Steve for you because Steve’s Cyborg formerly brainwashed assassin boyfriend is having a hard time.

No. Ultimately, she was doing this because she didn’t know what else to do. She wasn’t asking Sam to fix the problem, by any stretch of the imagination, she just wanted a bit of help getting word to Steve without raising alarms. Hopefully, Sam would understand. Hopefully, she’d get a chance to talk with him. Hopefully, at some point in the future, they would all look back and be able to laugh about it or some such shit. Well...probably not laugh, but be able to move past all of this.

Right now, everything felt grim, and Maggie was scared. She was scared for her friend, scared what her action or inaction might mean, and scared that once again, she might be facing a whole bunch of shit virtually on her own.

But there was nothing she could do about that right now. She had work to be getting on with. She would let Barnes try to figure out some of this shit on his own, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t going to reach out for help. Whatever happened next, she knew she couldn’t face it alone, nor should Barnes have to face it alone.

And you said you didn’t want to be therapist Maggie.

Well, she hadn’t, and until such time Barnes said that he wanted her as his therapist, she would continue to act as his friend and only his friend. Right now, that friend was worried and was going to pass that along the line to make sure that all of his other friends were a little worried too. It was the very least she could do.

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers was worried. That wasn’t altogether a foreign sensation but weighed heavily on his mind. It had been two weeks since Sam had received a message from Ramirez from one of the Wakandan war dogs that had tracked them down.

He hadn’t thought anything of it until a few days later after they’d extracted themselves from a war zone, and Sam had had a chance to listen to the recording. Sam had pulled him aside and asked if they could talk.

They’d walked a safe distance away from camp out toward the perimeter before Sam had removed the kimoyo bead, and had pressed play.

Ramirez’s face had appeared in a hologram. Her features had been drawn, and grave and Steve imagined that if there had been any color, she would’ve appeared pale too. Steve’s stomach had immediately sunk. Something had happened.

It was a short message, no more than a minute, maybe two. Maggie assured Sam that everyone was fine, but that Bucky was in need of a sympathetic ear. ‘But, he’s going through some shit, Sam, and I might know how to talk to military guys, this is a little bit outside of my wheelhouse. If you have any suggestions for me, I’d gladly hear, but right now, I’m not sure how best to help him work through some of this.’

I think that’s your cue, Steve.” Sam had said once the recording ended. Obviously, Steve had given him a perplexed look, and so the other man had continued without waiting for a response. “He needs you. He needs you more than we do. And you and I both know if you don’t go check up on him, and something happens to him, you’ll regret it.”

He’s in Wakanda. I can’t think of a safer place for him to be.”

You know what I mean, Steve. Go.” Sam had squeezed his hand. “We’ll be okay here. Mags wouldn’t have sent a message if she wasn’t worried. And that’s a big thing for her.”

Sam was right. Steve knew Sam was right. It just didn’t feel right that after everything they’d sacrificed for him, and by extension for Bucky, that he was going to leave them to fend for themselves. After talking it over with Sam, they’d brought the subject up with Natasha and Wanda, who’d all but threatened to kick his ass if he didn’t go.

It had taken him a little while to get back into contact with the Wakandans, but now it was Bucky’s birthday, and he was sitting downstairs in the lobby of the Royal Wakandan labs. He was fidgeting, his legs bouncing, his hands, tucked between his legs.

He’d played it like he wanted to see Bucky for his birthday, a decision that had been apparently co-signed by none other than the Princess. Mostly, he wanted to see what had worried Ramirez enough to send a message to Sam.

“Steve?” His head snapped up to see Bucky walking across the lobby from the elevators toward him, the princess trailing behind.

“Buck!” Steve shot to his feet and crossed the lobby to meet him in the middle, pulling the other man into a hug.

Bucky wrapped his arm around him, leaning into the hug. “Good to see you, Steve,” He paused, pulling back to survey the other man’s face, his hand going to Steve’s shoulder, cupping his neck, “Is everything okay? Sam? Romanoff? Maximoff? They’re all okay?”

“Everyone is alive and well, and they wanted me to come see you for your birthday.” Steve managed. “I take it the Princess didn’t mention I was coming.”

Bucky glanced over his shoulder at the young woman who stood watching from the side and gave her a look that Steve couldn’t quite decipher, before turning back to him. “She didn’t, but I’m glad you’re here.” He smiled.

It wasn’t a grave or a forced smile, it looked to be genuine, yet something twisted in Steve’s stomach as he tried to figure out what was actually going on. “Just finished up my usual scan, everything looks good, you wanna head back out to my place?” He asked, pleasantly.

“Yeah, sure.” Steve nodded.

“Same time same day next month, Barnes?” The princess called.

“Yes, thank you!” Bucky answered, a corner of his mouth twisting up in a smile.

“Anything for you, white boy! Be good!”

“You too, Princess. Thank you!” He said, gently leading Steve out of the Wakandan labs and out onto the busy streets. “When did you get in? You have a chance to eat something yet?” Bucky asked as he walked confidently, shoulder to shoulder through the streets.

“Oh. Yeah. About an hour ago. Did a quick debrief with Wakandan intelligence, then showered and changed.”

“Good.” Bucky wrinkled his nose, before glancing over at him. “That suit of yours is getting really rank Steve, are you sure you don’t wanna take The princess’s offer up. She’ll design you a new one. It may cost you something, but I know she wouldn’t mind a challenge.”

“I appreciate the concern, Buck. But I think I’ve already asked the Wakandans for a lot more than I can repay.” Steve answered, giving Bucky what he hoped was an inconspicuous once over.

He seemed fine. Then again, Bucky had always put on a brave face for Steve. Steve knew that. He wasn’t an idiot after all. He knew his best friend, and yet Steve couldn’t help but get the feeling that he was missing something, there was a missing piece to the puzzle that he couldn’t quite fit into the open jagged little hole that would make the whole picture come into focus.

“So, have you eaten? I have food back at my place, but there is a great Kebab place just around the corner from the feed transport if you wanna grab something for the road.”

Before Steve could answer, his stomach growled loudly, and Bucky laughed. “Come on,” He said, grabbing Steve’s hand. “Let’s eat, the transport won’t leave for another thirty minutes anyway.”

Okay, what the fuck?

He’d been prepared for a lot of things. He’d been prepared for Bucky to be withdrawn or angry that Steve was there. He’d been prepared for Bucky to be quiet and broody. He’d been prepared for bad news. That there had been degradation in the treatment, that something was happening with his brain, with his memory, with the physical aspects of what Hydra had done to him. Something. Anything! But Steve hadn’t been prepared for this. For...for...well normalcy. He hadn’t had normalcy since he came out of the ice, shit even before that, since 1942? Perhaps even before? And now...now this?

This wasn’t even normal. Well, perhaps it was for Bucky, but not for him. He could feel his pulse racing, as his eyes darted. Scanning the perimeter, making mental notes for where snipers could be hiding, aware of every set of eyes watching both him and Bucky as they moved through the market.

You’ve been on too long, Steve. Maybe you needed this.

He couldn’t help but wonder at the ease with which Bucky moved as they appeared to arrive at the Kebab place. “You wanna look at the menu, or do you want me to order for you?” Bucky asked.

“Huh?” Steve stammered, glancing between the menu written in Wakandan with large accompanying pictures and Bucky who was watching him, a line of worry starting to knit itself between Bucky’s brows. “Oh. Umm, you know what’s good. You can order for me.” Steve managed.

Bucky said nothing but nodded. Letting go of Steve’s hand, he turned to the vendor and ordered in crisp, clear Wakandan.

Bucky chatted amiably with the vendor while he prepared their food, and then removing money from a pouch on his belt paid the man before collecting the first of the Kebabs. “Here, Steve. It’s hot.” Bucky said, handing off the Kebab gingerly before turning to collection the second one.

They ate contentedly in silence as they walked toward the transport back to the village. “I take it you enjoyed that.” Bucky chuckled, watching as he practically inhaled the kebab.

“Yeah.” Steve nodded, finishing off the last few bites.

“That’s good.” Bucky said, “Well, here we are.”

It was a mule-drawn cart, noticeably empty. “We were dropping off animal feed to the capitol for further distribution around Wakanda.” Bucky continued as if reading his mind.

“Oh.” Steve managed, watching as Bucky situated himself on the back of the cart.

“We have a few minutes before the driver comes back. You wanna join me?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah. Sure.” Steve winced internally. His voice sounded pinched, tight.

Bucky looked completely at ease, his legs swinging gently. He was watching him closely, the crease between his brow deepening. “What’s going on, Steve?”

“Nothin’,” Steve shook his head, shoving his hands into the front pockets of the pants T’Challa had given him when he’d first arrived in Wakanda.

“Nothing. Right.” Bucky said dryly, his face remained still and impassive as he looked around. “Who told you?” Steve opened his mouth to protest, but Bucky cut him off. “Don’t try to lie to me, Steve. We both know you’re shit at it, just tell me who told you.”

Told me what, Buck? Steve wanted to ask. Ramirez’s message hadn’t told him anything, not really, but now Steve was so wound up he wasn’t sure what she even meant by anything she’d said.

“Was it The Princess?” Bucky asked. “Or The King?” There was nothing hostile in Bucky’s tone. It was all matter of fact.

“Ramirez sent a message to Sam. All she said was you were going through some shit and needed a sympathetic ear," Steve said in one rushed breath, afraid that if he didn’t get it all out at once, it might never come out. And then, in the silence that followed, he found himself bracing for the worst.

Why was he concerned? Did he think Bucky was going to be upset? Perhaps. Yes. But what mattered. Or rather, what was important was that Bucky was healthy, and in the process of healing. If Ramirez was concerned about Bucky, enough to send a message, it was worth investigating, and furthermore being honest with Bucky about why he was here.

Steve looked over at Bucky, who’s expression had morphed from one of concern, into one of shock and confusion. “She what?” He asked, brows furrowed together as he tried to puzzle through what he’d just heard.

“Ramirez...she...she sent a message to Sam. She was worried about you, didn’t say why exactly, just that you were going through a rough patch, and that she thought you could use a sympathetic ear. It took a while for it to get to us, but I’m here now. If you want me to be. If you need me to be.” It felt corny and cheesy and stupid even as he said it, but he meant it.

Bucky didn’t say anything, didn’t look at Steve, didn’t so much as move a muscle. But Steve could see the inner mechanisms working in the other man’s head. What it meant, Steve didn’t know, but he was willing to wait it out, willing to let the other man formulate his thoughts, willing to be whatever Bucky needed him to be in this particular situation.

“About a month and a half ago, I had a significant backslide in my mental health. Paranoia, PTSD, guilt.” He said slowly. “I cut off contact with Maggie. I guess it freaked her out, which is why she contacted you.”

His word choice to his tone, to his facial expressions, were all deliberate, every muscle twitch, every sideways glance. There was something else that Bucky wasn’t telling him. Something more to the story.

“I understand.” Steve managed. And he did understand from all perspectives involved. Steve had experienced a fraction of what Bucky had, there was going to be some residuals, he could understand not wanting others to have to experience all of that. He could also understand how Bucky suddenly severing contact would be off-putting, if not downright alarming. “Whatever you need, Buck," Steve added.

 “Yeah.” He sighed, rubbing his forehead. “I was trying to avoid this.”

“What?”

“Getting you involved.”

“What do you mean? You’re my friend, I love you. There isn’t anything I would do for you.” Steve protested while doing his best to be gentle.

Bucky chuckled, but it was devoid of all humor. “I know, Steve. I know. And I love you too.” He shook his head and sighed again.

“But?”

“I’ve been trying to figure you two out.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“You and Maggie. You’re a couple of strong-willed, stubborn, self-sacrificing morons.” He said. “I...uh...” Bucky looked down, his hand fiddling with a loose string on his pants. “I-”

“Buck.” Steve put his hand on Bucky’s, stilling it’s anxious movement. Bucky immediately tensed, but then relaxed almost instantly, adjusting his hand to take Steve’s hand. “You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to explain anything to me. I’m here because I wanna be here for you, because people who care about you are worried about you and what to make sure you’re okay.”

Bucky took a deep breath, nodding. He looked as though he was going to say something, but stopped as the driver approached. Bucky’s expression changed again, a smile spreading over his face. Exchanging a quick burst of conversation, the cart driver climbed up into his seat, and they started off back, Steve guessed, to the village.

Whatever was going on, Bucky clearly didn’t want to talk about it. Perhaps he’d get a chance to speak with Ramirez...Maggie, about it. At the very least, Bucky didn’t seem upset that Steve was here. In fact, he seemed perfectly at ease, but he was holding something back. Was he afraid of what he might think?

You’re a couple of strong-willed, stubborn, self-sacrificing morons. It wouldn’t be the first time that Steve had been called that, specifically by Bucky. He was, however, intrigued by how he’d been grouped together with Ramirez, whom Bucky had referred to as Maggie. Steve had known Ramirez for almost two and a half, nearly three years, and it struck him as odd somehow that Bucky had referred to her by anything other than her last name.

He didn’t know, but he needed answers, if not from Bucky, then from Ramirez. Glancing up at Bucky, Steve opened his mouth to speak but stopped himself. Instead, he edged himself closer to Bucky, stopping only as they brushed shoulders.

Then, without saying a word, Bucky leaned against him, setting his head on Steve’s shoulder, released a long, contented sigh.

Something was wrong, that much was true, but Steve wasn’t entirely sure if things could be altogether bad. He’d enjoy the ride back to the village, and who knows, maybe after a nap, and a little bit of downtime, Bucky might feel like talking. Or perhaps not. Whatever the case, they were together, and at the moment, that’s really what mattered.

 

-

 

Bucky was glad that Steve was here. Really he was. He had rather dreaded the thought of spending his hundredth birthday alone. Sure, if he’d asked, the entire nation of Wakanda would’ve shown up to throw him one hell of a party. It was just the idea that he’d allegedly lived for 100 years, while only having memories for about a quarter of it that he wanted to take with him. So a birthday party wasn’t a subject he’d broached with anyone. Not the Princess, not Omondi, not even to his therapist, though he knew he probably should bring up that whole only wanting to remember a quarter of it thing at some point.

His therapist. Right. That was the real reason that Steve was here. Maggie had gotten a message to Sam, who’d then diligently passed the word along to Steve, who’d decided the best course of action was to drop everything and travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles to make sure he was okay.

It was a romantic gesture to be sure, but one that Bucky knew had been needlessly spent. And he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to tell Steve that. The only thing he knew was that it meant unpacking a whole lot of really unpleasant things, and on his birthday too.

He turned his gaze to Steve, who was currently curled up on the reed mat, fast asleep in the middle of Bucky’s dwelling. It wasn’t a deep sleep, but it was restful. That was good, at the very least. Steve looked like he needed the rest. He never had been able to sleep well when they’d been on patrol, and from the looks of the bags under the man’s eyes, that was one thing that hadn’t changed.

His face looked peaceful, despite the evident exhaustion. Locks of sandy blonde hair fell across his face, and the scraggly beard smushed ever so slightly against the pressure of his face in the nook of his arm.

Bucky smiled, and though he knew he should’ve resisted the urge, leaned over to brush the strands gently out of his face.

Steve jerked awake, eyes flying open, darting around, searching for signs of danger. He settled slightly when he registered where he was after a few seconds, but now he was awake, and Bucky couldn’t help but feel more than a little guilty to have roused him from what had looked to be restful slumber.

“I’m sorry.” Steve stammered out after a moment, catching his gaze.

“Don’t be. I didn’t mean to wake you or startle you. You looked peaceful.” Bucky paused, a slight smile twisted at the corner of his mouth. “Like a greasy, hairy, little angel.”

“Little?” Steve snorted, easing himself wincingly into a seated position. “Thanks, Buck.”

“Of all the descriptors I just used, that’s what you’re going to take offense at, Steve?”

“Been a while since anyone has called me little, Buck.”

“Well, what about punk, jerk?”

Steve shook his head, chuckling lightly.

“You want some coffee?”

“Yeah. That would be nice.”

Bucky nodded, moving around the small space, he prepared the pot, aware that Steve’s eyes were following his every move.

Is he checking out my ass, or is he still trying to figure out what’s wrong?

Bucky knew that neither option was entirely out of the question, but that one was far more likely than the other. “You still take yours black, right?”

“Correct.”

“I have some fresh goat’s milk and local sugar. If you’re interested.”

“Just black is fine.”

Bucky poured coffee into two mugs, heaping an ample amount of sugar and milk into one, before handing Steve the unadulterated mug. They sat in silence, both sipping the coffee, and their minds both wrapped around a single thought, a single connecting thread. Why had Maggie sent the message?

He hadn’t spoken to Maggie in about a month and a half. Since he’d told her that he thought it was a bad idea for them to associate with one another, and since she’d given him a simple choice.

Chose what role you want me to play in your life.” Had been the basic gist of the situation.

So he’d decided that the role he wanted her to play was alive, and he’d elected to stay away. It had been hard, mainly because they still saw each other every Tuesday when he delivered feed to Jelani. They nodded at one another, Maggie would help him offload, and then he’d go about his business. If that particular arrangement had been difficult for her, she hadn’t let on, playing the role perfectly. Like an indifferent observer.

Yet, obviously, she hadn’t been that indifferent. She’d played indifferent, but had felt strongly enough to send a message to Sam. A strong enough her message to prompt Steve to come check on him when Bucky knew he had more important things to do.

“Steve.” Bucky’s voice shattered the silence, punctuation hard like an ice pick. “What exactly was in Maggie’s message?”

Steve surveyed him a moment, before slowly setting down his coffee mug and retrieving a single Komoyo bead from his pant’s pocket. “See for yourself, Buck.”

Bucky likewise set his coffee cup down, and slowly took the bead from Steve’s outstretched hand.

Well fuck.

This certainly was unexpected, but he’d asked for it, and now he’d have to face whatever came next. He pressed the center button and watched as the holographic image of Maggie appeared between them.

She looked like she had that day. Her hair was wrapped around her head in a tight, tidy coil. Her face was still and calm as it had been. Yet, the moment she opened her mouth and spoke, Bucky knew that she’d been crying, with just the smallest hint of a ragged edge on her voice, barely audible but there nevertheless. And it stabbed at his conscience like an angry little splinter of glass, like a thorn dug in deep under a fingernail.

“Hey, Sammie. I hope you’re doing well. I miss you, it’s been a bit since the holidays. I hope you and Steve, Nat, and Wanda got a chance to spend them somewhere warm, safe, dry, and comfortable. I hope you’re taking care of yourself, drinking lots of water, moisturizing, practicing proposer hygiene, and the like. I know what Steve’s beard looked like the last time I saw him. I better not find out you’ve been doing something horrible to your facial hair as well.” Maggie chuckled, her eyes crinkling in the corners. “Things have been a little hectic for me here, but I’m good. Everyone’s in good health and doing well.” At this, she paused, inhaling a sharp breath. “I’m worried about Bucky. He’s fine. Like, physically, everything is fine. But he’s going through some shit, Sam, and I might know how to talk to military guys, but this is a little bit outside of my wheelhouse. If you have any suggestions for me, I’d gladly hear them, but right now, I’m not sure how best to help him work through some of this.” She sighed, shaking her head. “He needs a sympathetic ear. While we certainly have a history together, at this point, I don’t think I’m the best candidate for that job at the moment. I don’t know. I guess I need a sympathetic ear, too, huh?” She chuckled again, but this time there was little humor in it. “I’m going to work on that, but if you have any advice in the meantime, I’m more than open to suggestions. Or even if you don’t have a suggestion and just wanna drop a line, I always enjoy hearing from you.”

Then with little fanfare, she signed off, and the hologram ended.

That’s it? He wanted to ask. That’s what had caused all of this trouble? But before he could even form the words, it struck him. That was the point. That was the whole point. She hadn’t wanted to create trouble. If she had, she would’ve told Sam everything would’ve laid out every fact, every gory detail. If she’d really wanted to cause trouble, she would’ve gone directly to the Princess or even to the King. Yet, Bucky knew from the expression Steve was currently leveling on him, her message had been effective. It had done its job.

“Yeah. I was going through some shit.” Bucky said slowly after a moment. “And she told me before she sent that message that I shouldn’t try to parse through it by myself.” He took a deep breath. “It took me a bit, but I figured out she was right. So I’ve been seeing a therapist to work through everything that happened to me.”

“That’s good. I’m glad.” Steve said, haltingly, “But that’s not all of it.”

“No.” Bucky shook his head. “Steve, you know some of what I’ve done, and what I’m capable of-”

“Buck, that wasn’t you. You didn’t have a choice.”

“I know. But I was in there, Steve. I saw what I was doing. I was in there.” Bucky wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him senseless if it meant getting him to understand that basic fact. But he couldn’t, and so he wouldn’t and instead picked up his coffee mug and stared down into its depths, trying to find his way through what he wanted to say. “Since Hydra. Since everything that’s happened, D.C. Last Chance, Vienna, Romania, Berlin, Siberia, I’ve hurt people. Intentional or not. That fact remains. I’ve hurt people, Steve, and I don’t want to hurt people.” He shook his head, blinking heavily as tears started to pool in the corner of his eyes.

Bucky exhaled sharply. Shaking his head. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t cry. He promised himself he’d be able to get through this entire explanation when it came to it. “I don’t want to hurt the people I care about.” Was all he could manage to get out.

“So you pushed her away. To protect her.” It wasn’t an accusation. Not exactly. It was merely a statement of fact, a fact that Steve knew and understood, perhaps all too well.

“Yeah.” It sounded stupid out loud.

It was something he’d been struggling with ever since he’d done it. Trying to convince himself that this was the right thing to do. He’d thought distance would help. He thought by making other friends and by filling his time, it would be easier to keep his distance. Yet, he found he still wanted to talk to her. Wanted, no practically craved, her friendship. She was funny and sarcastic and gave him shit about stuff. She was also unflinchingly honest, which Bucky respected and admired about her. She wasn’t honest to the point of cruelty, but she certainly wasn’t afraid of the truth. She made it look so easy. It wasn’t easy. Bucky knew that. If he’d learned one thing over the past month, honesty with another human being wasn’t easy, even being honest with yourself was an eternal struggle.

Bucky knew he should’ve gone to her. He should’ve gone to her and told her that he wanted her as his friend. He should’ve told her that he was going to therapy. He should’ve relieved some of the concern that was so very clear and apparent in her message. But she’d seemed so indifferent. She’d been so calm, and cool, and collected.

Should. What a horrible word.

“I’ve messed this up, haven’t I?” Bucky admitted, feeling a sense of shame rise in his chest and constrict his lungs. He looked up, meeting Steve’s expression, which was twisted in concern. “Steve?”

“I don’t think I’m the one you should be asking, Buck," Steve answered after a long pregnant pause. He sighed, settling further into himself, clasping the coffee mug in both hands, he looked down. “But since you’re asking me. I’ll say this.” He glanced back up at him. “If she cared enough to send a message halfway around the world to make sure you weren’t alone. I think she’ll understand. Provided you’re the one to talk to her about it.” Steve shook his head. There was a story there, but now wasn’t the time to ask.

“When?” He managed, voice leaden with audible dread.

At this, Steve chuckled, “You and I both know I have the absolute worst timing.” He looked around the small space, examining the scene with the trained eye of a tactician. “What do you have planned for your birthday?

“Huh?” Bucky did a metaphoric double-take at the sudden shift in perspective.

“Your birthday, Buck. You are turning one-hundred-years-old today, old man.”

“Yeah. No. No. I get that, but what does that have to do with...well...with any of this?”

Steve looked at him like he might roll his eyes but thankfully refrained. Instead, he nodded, clearing his throat before continuing. “I thought that it might give you a strategic reason to go speak with Ramirez.”

“Oh. Oh.” Bucky felt like an idiot, but again, thankfully, Steve didn’t say anything. “Like? Right now?”

“You’re not going to feel any better until you go and talk to her. Invite her to dinner, and we can watch a movie. What’s next on your list?”

“High Noon, I think.” Bucky stopped as he actually processed what was being said. “Wait. No. I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Why not?”

Bucky spluttered and stammered a stream of incoherent noises a moment before his brain started functioning. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to drag her back into this mess? When she has a chance to-”

He stopped at Steve’s incredulous but not unkind expression. “Buck.” He said gently, “You have to give her that choice.” Bucky didn’t say anything.

What was there to say? Steve was right. Bucky knew he needed to make right with her. He knew he needed to give her the choice, the option to either accept his friendship or reject it, on her terms rather than his.

Why give her the option? Why let her walk back into the mess when you know damn well that giving her this option is going to be a front-row ticket to the shit show of the century. Bucky Barnes un-fucks his life, a thousand part series, limited run.

It just didn’t seem fair, to her, to him, to any of them, that she should be allowed back into the mess.

Back into? She’s never been out of this mess, James Barnes, and you know it.

There it was. There was the truth of it.

“Don’t you think I should wait? Until I have my shit in order?” It was a useless and rather pathetic excuse, but it was the only one that Bucky could come up with at present as he grasped at straws.

“By giving her a choice, you also give her a choice to walk away.”

“Moment by moment exercise in consent.” He murmured.

“Do you want her as your friend?” Steve asked.

Bucky took a deep breath. But it’s not about what I want! He wanted to scream, but he knew that was his brain playing unkind tricks on him. They’d been working on that. At least now, he was recognizing it was his brain being unfair.

“Yeah.” He managed, exhaling the breath he’d been holding. “Yeah, I do.”

He wanted to be her friend. Shit, he'd settle for the mere opportunity to maybe get to be her friend, but that meant doing something difficult and likely painful.

“Then I think you should go over there, say your bit, ask her to come over for your birthday, and then let her make her choice.” Steve paused. “As the world’s leading expert in waiting too long, I’d ask, after all the waiting Ramirez has done, are you willing to ask her to wait longer?”

Bucky surveyed Steve. He wanted to say something smart, or at the very least tease him a bit about still being terrible with women after all this time, but there was something pained in his expression as he said it and so Bucky wasn’t going to push.

“I know, Steve. I know.” He was right. Bucky knew he was right. He needed to make right with her.

Some part of Bucky knew that this was not just for her but for him as well, and for Steve for that matter too. It would give them all a bit of certainty, and a firmer sense of where solid ground was. He only wished he felt ready. He only wished that he had more of his shit together.

“Com 'on Buck. How many times does a guy turn one-hundred?” Steve chuckled, smiling into his coffee mug.

“I’m still not sure how that’s entirely relevant to the conversation, but I take your point. Y.O.L.O. that’s what the kids say, right?”

“Back in about 2012," Steve said dryly.

“The Princess has been very diligent about catching me up on internet slang," Bucky replied, by way of an explanation.

Yes. You only live once. And if there was any day to remember that, it would be on your birthday. “Okay, Steve, okay.” He finished off his coffee and set it in the basin to wash later. “I’ll be back. Do you need anything before I leave?”

“I think I’ll manage.” Steve watched as he moved around the small hut, collecting his sandals and bag. “You gonna be okay?”

Bucky paused, standing over Steve. He wasn’t sure. Yes. Eventually, everything would be all right, but every cell in his body at the moment was screaming at him to not do the thing he was getting ready to do.

“Come here.” Steve rose, pulling him into a hug, which Bucky returned. They stood that way for a long moment as Bucky leaned into Steve’s embrace. When they finally broke apart, Steve cupped his face. “One way or another, it’s going to be okay, Buck. I’ll be here when you get back. Okay?”

“Yeah. Okay.” He nodded.

They kissed, and Steve sent him on his way, down the long footpath toward Jelani’s village. He’d walked the path what seemed like hundreds of times, day or night, rain or shine, and he knew where all the little dips and troublesome rocks and holes were, and he could avoid with ease. Yet, today felt like he was finding each one with his foot, as if for the first time, as his stomach twisted into knots, and his mind raced, creating every possible stumbling block.

By the time Bucky approached the village, he could feel the sting of bile on the back of his throat. His mind battling itself as it tried to talk him out of what he knew he needed to do.

Steve was right, of course, he needed to make right with her. If not for his sake, then for hers. It was the least he could do.

Then as he rounded the last turn leading up to village dwellings, he could hear the sound of laughter, among them, was Maggie. The sound was loud and full and joyous. Bucky hesitated. She sounded happy, she sounded content. She sounded like she was doing just fine without him in her life.

You need to give her a choice. This is giving her a choice, and allowing some closure, one way or another. Bucky repeated over and over to himself, as he tried to hold onto his sense of calm and purpose.

Walking up to the grove of trees at the center of the village, he found a dozen women and half a dozen young girls gathered around participating in a variety of weaving, spinning, and dying activities. There was pleasant conversation as they worked, punctuated with peals of laughter. There were wizened old women with their grey, and white hair twisted neatly into long dreads, which were further braided and arranged on their heads who sat beside the young girls no more than nine or ten, working the various fibers into thread. The middle-aged women had their hair wrapped, and their scarves were arranged in magnificent knots, and they worked both the looms and the dying vats. The young women and teens with their hair twisted and beaded in the latest fashions worked the drying racks or received instruction on the massive looms. Situated in the mix of this intergenerational activity was Maggie. She was focused on her work at the loom she was sitting in front of while repeating phrases the women supplied to her. Tongue twisters, from what Bucky could manage. Not a nice thing to do to someone learning the language, but she seemed to be taking it in stride, a broad smile on her face.

Then, a hush came over the group, and as if by silence consensus, all eyes turned to him.

“Ahh! White Wolf!’ Teela addressed him in English, breaking the increasingly awkward silence. “I’m afraid my husband is away on business, is there something I can help you with.”

His mouth went dry as he glanced around at the collected expectant gazes he was receiving from every pair of eyes. Well, nearly every pair.

Maggie was focused down on her loom, her gaze intent and expression intense as she worked, aware of his presence, but doing her best to keep from acknowledging it.

If you chicken out now, you have to face Steve when you get back to your place. You’ve made it all the way here, you can’t back out now. Taking a deep breath, he managed, “I was hoping I could have a word with Maggie if she can be spared.”

All eyes volleyed from him to Maggie, who’s busy hands had stilled. Her smooth, even expression formed a wrinkle as her brows furrowed. “I mean, if you don’t mind, Maggie.” He added, trying to catch her eye.

There was a pause, as everyone around them held a collective breath, and what must have only been seconds stretched out into eternity while they waited for her answer. Then, wordlessly, she nodded. Rising, she brushed herself off before turning to address him directly without meeting his gaze, “Sure, we can talk. I have something back in my hut that I’d like to give you.”

Without waiting for him to respond, she started walking, “Oh. Okay.” He stammered as he followed after her, aware of the eyes that followed them as they walked away.

As they walked, Bucky wasn’t sure if he was glad for the silence or not. He only knew that it gave no relief to the tension that was building as he desperately tried to find the courage to say what he’d come to say in the first place. Is that was she was waiting for? Does she want me to just start talking? Is she angry with me? He didn’t know, and that was the worst of all.

Then as they began down the hill toward her dwelling, her pace slowed from a brusque walk to a more leisurely stroll, and she adjusted to match his pace so that they walked side by side.

“How have you been?” She asked, breaking the silence.

“Good. I’ve been good.” He managed.

“I’m glad.” Maggie paused, and Bucky braced for what he knew what’s coming next. “I take it you’ve reached a decision," she said plainly, nothing more, nothing less.

This wasn’t unexpected, or in Bucky’s view, unwelcome. This was a good lead in to what he needed to say, but now that he was here, he didn’t know how to say what he needed to say. “Yeah.” Bucky started, but as soon as he did, his mind panicked, and everything he’d wanted to say flew out the window, leaving him grasping for straws, trying to pull words out of thin air.

She stopped and looked up at him, making eye contact with him for the first time. there wasn’t anger or frustration or hurt in her expression, though he would’ve almost preferred that to the calm, almost placid look of understanding on her face. “It’s okay, Bucky. Take your time.” Maggie said, her voice gentle, almost timid as if she was afraid if she spoke too loudly, he might spook.

This isn’t about you, you moron. This is about her. About making sure that she’s okay about giving her a choice in what she wants from you.

Bucky took a deep breath before charging on. “I’m sorry, Maggie. I should-” He cut himself off. Collecting his thoughts and his courage, he took another deep breath and continued. “I have made a decision, and I’m sorry I didn’t reach out sooner. I wanted to come talk to you sooner. I just didn’t think it would be appropriate, considering what happened.” He winced. This wasn’t going well, but what was worse was the way she was just standing there, watching him with those big, dark, understanding eyes. “I’ve been seeing a therapist.” He blurted out. Then, when she didn’t say anything, he continued. “About three times a week, for about a month now.”

Maggie nodded thoughtfully, “About two weeks after your dream?” She inquired, more as conformation than curiosity as they started walking down the path again, slower than before. Still, the forward momentum felt like a reasonably good sign that things weren’t going horribly.

“Yeah.” He breathed. The words were coming easier now, although he still wasn’t sure what her reaction meant. “The Princess practically made it compulsory after my last brain scan. She was appalled at my brain chemistry. All but threatened to tell Steve and her brother.”

“Read you the riot act, huh?” There was amusement in her voice now, which was encouraging, but still, his stomach twinged. He wasn’t done yet. There was still so much more that needed to be said.

“She was right. You were right.” Bucky said. His thoughts felt all choppy, coming in bits and pieces. At this point, he was just glad they were coming at all. “I’ve been talking through some stuff. It’s been helpful.” He added.

“I’m glad.”

“That’s part of the reason why I waited to talk to you. I wanted to try to get my head on right. Trying to find ways to trust myself. Find ways to forgive myself.” The last sentence came out small and not at all confident, but at the root of it was truth. If he couldn’t trust himself or find ways to forgive himself, then how could he ask others to trust or forgive him. It was a process, incomplete and shoddy at the moment, but it felt important, vital, in fact, to say to someone who he felt he’d done wrong in so many ways. “I’ve been trying to make friends.” So that you don’t feel obligated to be my friend, or think that I’m alone. He didn’t say it, but that’s what it meant. That’s what he hoped she understood.

“That’s good. Me too,” she said lightly.

He felt relief wash over him, which was unexpected yet pleasant. So she hadn’t been alone worrying about him all this time. Good. That was good. “The weaving circle?” He hazarded.

“Yeah,” She nodded. “Oh, Bucky, I’m dreadful at it.” She giggled, shaking her head. “But they’ve been tremendously kind, and I have to say it’s been nice to have a group of friends again. How about you?”

“Bao.” He said, watching her brow wrinkle. “A type of Mancala game,” He clarified quickly. “A board game. Some of the men in the village get together and play it in the evening. They roped me in shortly after all this started. They’re very competitive.”

“Oh. You any good?”

“After a fashion.”

“Oh?”

“Once they’ve all had a few.”

Maggie burst out laughing. It was a full chested laugh. Bucky wouldn’t call it beautiful, or pleasant, or melodic, but it was undeniably happy, and he couldn’t help but crack a small smile as he waited for the laughter to subside. “Yeah, that would do it.” She agreed, wiping at her eyes.

“But it’s fun. Or when we don’t play Bao, they give me lessons in Wakandan epics.”

“Really?”

“Well yeah. Most of Wakandan history is oral. They have written records, but the true mark of a learned Wakandan is being able to recite all the old stories from memory. So they have contests to see who can remember the most stories. It goes on for hours and often devolves into some aggressive heckling if someone gets something wrong. They’re very competitive.”

“That seems to be a running theme, but it sounds absolutely beautiful and fascinating. I’d love to hear some of it at some point.”

“I’ll have to ask, but next time Omondi hosts a contest, you should come and listen with me.”

“That sounds wonderful. You’ll have to translate for me. My Wakandan hasn’t improved much.”

“Those tongue twisters are no joke.” He commented.

Pink tinged her cheeks.“You heard that?”

“You were doing admirably.”

“I don’t believe that for a minute, James Barnes.” She shook her head, bashfully.

“And why would I lie?”

“Doll?” She raised an eyebrow expectantly.

“Hey, I wasn’t going to presume.” He raised his hand in mock surrender.

Maggie nodded with a bright little smirk. “Well, here’s looking at you kid, huh?”

“Kid?” Now it was his turn to raise a skeptical brow.

“Well, I guess it doesn’t quite work when addressing the resident geezer.”

“I’ll have you know I’m only the third oldest in the village.”

“Oh. Only. And the country?”

“Haven’t asked.”

“Well, I would warrant you’re the best looking for your age.” She laughed, “Happy birthday, by the way.”

“Thank you.”

They padded down the path in companionable silence a moment before she sighed. “Ugh. I’ve missed this.”

“Me too.”

“I forgot how hard it is to make friends.”

“Jeeze, right?”

“It was so easy as a kid, I don’t know how we managed it when we were kids.”

“Being trapped together eight hours a day will do that for you.”

“I hear the military is good for that, too," Maggie added.

“Yeah,” He agreed.

“So, any big plans for the big One-double-O?”

“Actually, that’s part of the reason I’ve come. Steve and I wanted you to join us for dinner.”

“Oh. Steve’s in-country?” Bucky couldn’t help but notice how her tone pitched upward ever so slightly.

“Yeah. He mentioned you sent Sam a message.”

At this, she stopped dead in her track and turned squarely to face him, an expression of horror and shock, gripping her features as the blood drained from her face. “Bucky—I—I’m sor—I shoul-”

“You did the right thing, Maggie,” he interjected before she could stammer on any further. “It should be me thanking you for caring enough to do that for Steve and for me. You don’t have any reason to apologize.”

“You’re not angry?” She asked, still tense as if waiting to waylay an oncoming maelstrom.

“A little late to worry about that, isn’t it?” He asked in what he hoped was a playful manner.

A flush rose on her cheeks, her face reddening as if in a rush to replace the previous blood loss.“I mean—I—”

“I’m not angry, Maggie," Bucky said firmly. “A month ago, I probably would’ve been pissed. Chalk it up to time and distance, giving a bit of perspective, but I understand why you did it, and I’m grateful.”

He felt stupid admitting that, but the look of relief that washed over her was worth any amount of discomfort on his part. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” He added, for good measure.

Maggie surveyed him a moment, and Bucky was almost sure she was going to say something. Instead, she just nodded firmly, and they resumed the steady march down toward her dwelling.

Bucky watched her out of the corner of his vision. This was not how he’d expected this conversation to go, but he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d expected, or furthermore, even now where he stood with her. Yet, as they walked, he got the feeling that there would be no further conversation. He’d made his decision, and that was all that needed to be said between them.

“I’ve missed you, Bucky.” She admitted in a small, soft voice, almost out of earshot.

It was a small admission, but it made his heart pound and his mind race. I’ve missed you too. He wanted to reply. He wanted to grab her hand and hold it as they walked. Wanted to tell her about all of the movies he’d watched and books he’d read and for them to launch into their usual banter, but it wasn’t the appropriate time or place for it, not yet.

Before he could summon the courage to say anything, they arrived outside of her hut, and she turned to him. “I’ll be right back.” She stammered hurriedly.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Nodding, she rushed into her hut and disappeared from sight. The only hint to her activities was the sound of shuffling, muttering, and a number of low crashing noises before she emerged a moment later with a square of folded fabric in both hands.

“I would’ve had it with me, but I didn’t think I was going to see you today.” She beamed proudly, extending the square to him.

“Thank-Thank you.” He stammered, their fingers brushing as he took it in hand. “You really didn’t have to get me anything.”

“It’s a scarf. I cut it from the remnants of the fabric you bought for me back New Year’s Eve when we ran into one another at the market.”

“I do remember.” He paused, glancing up at her. “You...you made it for me?”

“Mhh, Hmm.” She beamed proudly.

“Thank you, Maggie. For everything.” It wasn’t enough, it would never be enough. Yet, it was all he had to give. For now, that would have to be enough until he could make it up to her, somehow.

“Of course.”

There was a long pause, and he drew in an even longer breath. “But, Maggie.” He continued. “I do want to be your friend, seeing as they’re hard to make when you’re not in grade school. Provided that’s something you want, after everything.”

Maggie surveyed him a moment, “I would.” She smiled gently. “I’ve missed our movie nights.”

“Me too.” He admitted, feeling bashful in his admission. “Steve and I were going to watch ‘High Noon’ this evening after dinner if you’d care to join us.”

“I wouldn’t want to intrude, particularly since you don’t get to see Steve very often.”

“It is my hundredth birthday. I’d like you to be there to celebrate. It’s not every day someone breaks into triple digits."

“No. I suppose not.” She agreed.

“As long as that’s something that you want.” He rushed out, the words running together.

Maggie gave him an understanding look and nodded. “It would be my absolute pleasure to spend your birthday with you, James Barnes.”

Bucky didn’t have a response to that. He glanced away and down at the scarf. The fabric was a dark brown chocolate color with brown patterns, dotted with ornate, blue designs on the face of the scarf. It was folded neatly, but the hem that he could see was done inexpertly, yet he couldn’t help but note the way that his throat seized at the very thought that she’d spent time on him. Time enough to measure, cut out, and then hem something, just for him.

“Do you like it?” Maggie asked, hesitantly breaking the silence between them.

“Yeah.” Bucky cleared his throat, “Yeah. Could you tie the knot for me?” He asked, glancing up at her. She was watching him, her expression was soft.

“I can.” Maggie extended her hands to him, and he set the scarf in them.

Bucky watched as she unfurled the fabric square, and marveled at how much allegedly extra fabric she’d used for the scarf. She gathered two of the corners and knotted them expertly. He could’ve fumbled his way through trying to knot the thing or have asked Steve to do it for him, but he’d wanted to see what she would do, and furthermore wanted to both be able to wear it right now and show her his appreciation for her gift.

“Ta-da!” She announced, holding the scarf up by the knot in a triumphant pose.

“Just a minute.” He said, pulling the scarf he was wearing over his head, he tucked it into his satchel before donning the new one.

“Looks good.”

“Thanks.”

There was a long pause as they stood, facing each other, neither apparently sure of what they wanted to say.

“I won’t keep you, I know you probably want to get back to your weaving circle.”

“Yeah, I need to get a few more inches on my patterns before Teela lets me quit for the day.” She admitted playfully.

“I look forward to seeing what you manage to create.”

“Yeah? Me too.” Maggie chuckled lightly. She paused, “Thank you for dropping by, it was nice to see you.”

“I’ll see you tonight, right? I know Steve would like to see you too.” He would’ve cringed at the near hopeless desperation in his voice, but didn’t if only not to embarrass himself further.

“I’ll come by for dinner, I’m afraid I have some work things to attend to later tonight and won’t be able to stay for the movie. Is there anything you’d like me to bring?”

Well, it was better than nothing, and although he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was only coming to be nice, it would be nice to have both Steve and Maggie there to celebrate his turning one-hundred. “We have everything covered, but if I think of something between now and then, I’ll let you know.”

“What time?”

“Six.” He said firmly.

“Excellent. I’ll be there.” Maggie smiled. “Well, I guess I better head back. What should I tell the others when they ask?”

Bucky hesitated, frowning. “I...I uhh, I don’t know...know what you mean by that...” He admitted.

“They’re going to ask what we were talking about? Should I say birthday stuff?”        

“Whatever you think is best.”

“Okay.” She nodded, with a widening grin. “I’ll do my best to add positive grist to the rumor mill.”

“Rumor mill?” He echoed.

“Oh, of course!” Maggie laughed, shaking her head. “It’s a universally acknowledged truth. Particularly when it comes to the Maggie-Bucky betting pool.”

“Ah. That. Right? How could I have forgotten.” He chuckled dryly.

“Yeah. That.

“See you later, then?”

“Yeah. I’ll see you later.” She nodded. “Let me know when you’ve made it safely back to your place and send Steve my best.”

“Of course.”

“Bye!” She waved before turning and marching back up the hillside to where she’d left her work.

Bucky waited until she’d disappeared from sight before turning back down the path toward home, where Steve was waiting for him. He was still feeling perplexed as he walked home, but now there was far less turmoil. He and Maggie were going to be friends, she was going to come over and celebrate his birthday, and things, it seemed, were going to be okay. That was all he could ask for today or any day, for that matter.

One foot in front of the other, bit by bit, things were going to be okay.

           

-

 

She’ll come to dinner but not the movie. Bucky had announced when he’d returned from where Ramirez was staying.

Bucky hadn’t seemed particularly upset by this announcement, but he also hadn’t let on how their meeting had gone otherwise. Ultimately, Steve knew it was none of his business, and if Bucky was choosing to play this close to his chest, that was his right. But Steve was a nosy gossip. He’d learned from the best, and had undoubtedly given Becca good primer back in the day. While he would never admit it, he was dying to know what Bucky had said to Ramirez, what Ramirez had said in return, and why exactly Bucky had returned with a different scarf than the one he’d left with. Bucky hadn’t offered any answers, and so Steve hadn’t pushed.

Then Bucky had been called away on an errand for Omondi. Giving him brief instructions on what to do for dinner, Bucky had then departed, leaving Steve alone.

Steve was glad bucky was keeping busy and apparently doing well, but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Bucky was still withholding information. He was worried.

So he set to chopping vegetables and preparing dinner for Bucky’s hundredth birthday party celebration. He paused in his activities only at the sound of footfalls and looked up to see Ramirez standing at the edge of camp.

“Hey Steve.” She smiled, adjusting the bag over her shoulder. Her hair was down in a long braid that around by her waist. She wore a halter top jumpsuit in the same fabric as Bucky’s new scarf, Steve couldn’t help but notice, and sturdy leather sandals on her feet. She looked perfectly at ease, as compared to the last time they’d seen each other. Had she made the jumpsuit and then the scarf? The scarf and then the jumpsuit? Was it mere coincidence. Steve didn’t know.

“Hey, Ramirez.” He said as he rose to his feet.

“I’m not early, am I?” She asked almost nervously as she glanced around, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear with her left hand, a set of delicate bracelets around her wrist.

“No. Not at all.” Steve shook his head, “Bucky had an errand to run.”

“Oh, okay.” She paused, “It’s good to see you, Steve.”

“You too.”

“Oh, come here.” Ramirez smiled, crossing the yard she went up on her toes and gave him a quick hug which Steve had to lean into to accommodate.

He’d forgotten how small she was. How physically fragile and weak she was in comparison to him, Bucky, Natasha, or even Sam. Yet, Steve was always struck by her tremendous strength of will and spirit, and how big in their minds, she’d managed to become despite her physical size.

“I’m glad you’re here.” She said as they drew apart.

“Yeah, me too. Thank you for your message.”

“I apologize if it caused you any un-due alarm, but I was concerned.”

“Yeah. No. I get that.” He paused. Ramirez’s expression was so earnest and sincere. He had so many questions, and he wasn’t sure where to start. But if something terrible had happened, she would’ve told them, right? She wouldn’t keep that from him? She’d been very clear that she and him were both fine, that they were both in good health. This feeling that Bucky was holding something back was all in his head, wasn’t it? “But you two, you’re, you’re all right? Right?” Steve asked, breathlessly.

“I think so.” She surveyed him before continuing. “Bucky didn’t tell you what happened, did he?”

“No.” Steve shook his head. “I mean, sort of. He told me that his mental health was in a spiral and that he pushed you away.”

Ramirez nodded and waited a beat before meeting his gaze again. “He had a dream, and I’d be willing to bet my non-existent life savings, that there were multiple dreams, where he was triggered by Hydra and forced to kill people. Me, in particular. He didn't‏ give specifics, but it was bad enough to freak him out.”

“Yeah.” Steve nodded. He knew the nightmares he had, he could only imagine the types that haunted Bucky in his sleep. “Thank you for telling me.”

“I just wanted you to know that no one was physically harmed. He didn’t try to hurt himself, or me, or anyone else for that matter. He just really needed a sympathetic ear. Hence my message. And now you’re here, and we’re having a birthday party!” She said lightly.

But I should’ve been here all along, with him, helping him with this. I should’ve been with him while he was trying to figure all of this out. But he’d been needed elsewhere. Sam needed him too. Sam was on the run because of him and because of Bucky. Sam needed Steve to be present and focused. Nat and Wanda, they were doing their own thing, but Sam had been the firm and steady hand that Steve had relied upon when they’d been tracking down Bucky, and now on the run, Sam deserved all of Steve’s support and comfort. Not just as his partner, but as his teammate. He just couldn't‏ justify sitting comfortably warming himself in the Wakandan sun while his team, while his boyfriend mopped up the mess, he’d made.

“Don’t beat yourself up, Steve.” She said, squeezing his arm tenderly. “Bucky is well looked after. And now that he’s going to therapy, he’s learning how to manage his stressors and triggers. It’s a process, but he’s made a good step forward.”

“You sound so sure.”

She smiled demurely. “I was a therapist before I became a Private Superhero Investigator, turned vigilante gun runner. Recognizing you need therapy, and actually going to therapy are two very different things. The fact that he’s made a decision means he’s building the networks of support that he needs to aid his recovery along.”

“Good. That’s good.” Steve said. “Thank you, Ramirez.”

“For?”

“Caring. Or caring enough to reach out.”

“Of course.” She nodded, smiled warmly. “Now, we have a birthday dinner to prepare.” Ramirez walked to the table where he’d been sitting, and sunk down opposite, opening her satchel began removing ingredients. “So how’s Sam? I hope you’re not having him do anything too stupid while you’re away?”

“Oh no, Sam gets into plenty of stupid without me around to help that along.” Steve chuckled.

“Trust me, I know, but you certainly have helped broaden the depth and variety of stupid he’s able to get up to.”

“Okay. Fair. But he’s good. He and Nat and Wanda are laying low. They’re supposed to call me if they get into any sort of trouble.”

“So what’s the going rate? 24-48 hours?”

“For what?”

“Before you call to check in on them.”

 “I trust them.” Steve protested.

“But do you trust them to call you if it means interrupting your best friend and long-time squeeze’s hundredth birthday party?” She raised a playful eyebrow.

Steve froze. The thought had occurred to him, but now that Ramirez had vocalized it, his mind started to spin with the possibilities.

“Steve. I’m kidding.” She laughed.

“Oh. Right. Yes, of course.” He stammered as he joined her at the table and resumed preparing vegetables for dinner. Steve stopped a moment watching as she added and mixed together with the various ingredients she’d brought. “Cake?” He ventured.

“Actually, no. Sopapillas.” She answered. “Bucky and I normally have those when we do movie nights. However, I’m doing something slightly different with them on account of it being his birthday.”

“What’s that?”

“Rather than just honey, I’m going to top them with sliced mangos, chocolate, and homemade whip cream.”

“Sounds delicious.”

“Should be.” She nodded. “So. All kidding aside, how long do you plan to stay in country?”

“24 to 48 hours. I don’t want to be away too long.”

“I understand. I appreciate you both letting me encroach upon your time together. I know leave time is all too precious.”

“Of course," Steve replied. He paused, glancing around. “Do you think. I mean. I don’t know if you could answer this, but,” Steve could feel his breath hitch in his chest. “Do you think he’s happy here?”

Ramirez didn’t answer immediately, her eyes maintained their focus, even as Steve could see the wheels behind them working while she formulated her response. “I think he’s trying to be. Though I think the change of pace is a little jarring. I know it was for me, and I haven’t been through a fraction of what you or him have been through. Why? You thinking about picking out real estate and settling down in the Wakandan countryside?”

“No. No. I couldn’t leave Sam to clean up my messes.”

“I was saying bring Sam with you, but your point stands.” She smiled.

“Yeah," Steve said. A sharp knot stabbed at his chest, and he looked back down at the cutting board.

Every day. He’d thought about that question, thought about retiring nearly every day since he’d gotten out of the ice. He wanted to, but what would he do? He couldn’t imagine himself settling down and living the slow life. Life wouldn’t let him. There would always be another fight, another battle that would call him away. But he would fight every day if it meant that Bucky could live here quietly, with his goats in his hut away from the fray. Even though it meant they were apart and that they had to steal moments together. It was worth it to Steve to continue to fight if it meant Bucky didn’t have to. How long that would be tenable, he didn’t know, but he’d do it as long as he needed to.

He needed to make sure in the long run that Bucky was going be safe, that the world was going to be safe without him. He needed to find a way to make right with Tony so that he, and Sam, and Nat, and Wanda and everyone else would have a chance for civilian life. He’d want Sam to come with him, of course, but even then, he wasn’t even sure how that would work at the moment. Or what Bucky and Sam would think about that sort of proposition.

“But to answer your question, Sam’s good. ” Steve said, clearing his throat.

“I’m glad to hear it. He’s a good man, you’re lucky to have him.”

“I know.”

“Good.” She said without skipping a beat.

There was no further admonishment, no lecture, no ‘you hurt him, I hurt you’ lecture. Yet, Steve knew that all those things had been contained in that single syllable. Strength of will, not of size. Sound familiar, doesn’t it?”

“You mind if I turn on music?” She inquired.

“Not at all. What did you have in mind?”

“I was going to ask for your preference.” Ramirez paused, her mouth twisting into a mischievous smile. “Although, I have to say, Steven Grant Rogers, you’ve been holding out on me. You ran into Glenn Miller while on tour with the OSC and failed to mention that to me the entire time we were living on avengers property together? I am hurt and offended!”

Steve could feel a flush rising on his cheeks. “Whatever Bucky told you, it wasn’t that big of a deal.” He mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Not a big deal. Right, like plowing Glenn Miller down in a hallway in Georgia and not recognizing him isn’t a big deal.” Bucky’s voice cut in sarcastically, and Steve looked up to see Bucky walking toward them. “Next, you’re going to tell her that working with Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Judy Garland on a Bond Sales Campaign together wasn’t a big deal.”

“It’s been over seventy years, Buck. Are you ever going to let me live that down?” Steve glanced up at Bucky, who stooped down and pecked him on the check.

“On my hundredth birthday? No. I don’t think so.” Bucky chuckled, shaking his head, he stood back upright. “Glad you made it, Maggie.” He cracked a smile. “Do excuse him, I trust he’s been on his best behavior.”

“Only his best," Ramirez said brightly. “And as the birthday boy...man...elder...has arrived, he gets to pick the music.”

“Well, Steve knows I’m more than a little partial to Miller, but as you are both my guests, I’m going to let you fight it out," Bucky answered.

Ramirez glanced over at him with a broad grin. “So. How ‘bout it, Rogers?”

Steve exhaled a strangled sigh and chuckled. “Miller.”

“Sounds good.” She nodded seriously. Queuing up the music, she chuckled to herself as the first notes of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With anyone else but me)” started playing softly from a speaker somewhere out of Steve’s direct line of sight.

“Everyone happy?” Bucky asked.

“I can’t believe you told her about that.” Steve shook his head.

“Oh come on, Rogers. Cut the guy a little slack, I did get unrestricted access to all of the stories from you and Becca when I was living with you.”

“Oh yeah. Fanny McGregor?” Steve questioned, watching as Bucky rolled his eyes, shaking his head with a fond smile.

“Yeah. But my favorite is Becca’s retelling of how she and Bucky did a dramatization of Little Red Riding Hood.”

“Because the woodsman was hacking up a lung?” Bucky provided as he stoked the coals and added more fuel to the fire.

“I distinctly recall that you got in trouble for ripping your mother’s nightgown.” Steve interject before adding in the best falsetto he could conjure, “All the better to see you with my dear.”

“Which was immediately preceded by Becca hitting me, not so gently over the head with a brick, yes.” Bucky winced, rubbing the back of his head, for, Steve was sure, the purposes of dramatic retelling.

Ramirez laughed.

“So. What can I help with, you two?” Bucky asked, towering over them.

“Absolutely nothing, James Barnes.” Ramirez cut in before Steve could answer. “It is your hundredth birthday. You will make yourself a drink and relax.”

Bucky turned opened mouthed to Steve, who shrugged, “You heard the woman.”

“It seems I’m outvoted. Can I get either of you anything to drink while you work.”

“If you could put on a pot of coffee. I wouldn’t mind a mug. Steve?”

“Coffee sounds perfect.” He agreed.

Bucky set to work on the coffee, while the music played, and they all talked and told stories, and laughed as they made and then consumed dinner.

Ramirez’s sopapillas followed, and they were sugary and perfect, and they brewed two more pots of coffee, chatting late into the evening.

“So. Movie?” Bucky suggested as there was a decided lull in the conversation. “Before it gets too much later?”

“I’m afraid I can’t stay. I told Jelani I’d be by to check on one of the horses.” Ramirez shook her head, quickly draining the rest of her mug.

“Oh. okay.” Bucky said, and Steve couldn’t help but note the palpable disappointment in Bucky’s tone as if he’d rather hoped he’d changed her mind over the course of the evening.

“Sorry. Sick horse. We’re all taking rotations. Jelani has a couple of other things he’s dealing with.” Ramirez said apologetically as she rose from where she’d been situated. “Otherwise, I would.”

“Nothing serious, I hope," Steve said, glancing between them, trying to get a read for what was going on.

“No. Thankfully, he just needs to be checked on and possibly given another round of medication.”

“Before you go,” Bucky began hesitantly as also stood up.

“Oh yeah. I was going to help with clean up before I went.” She commented, before starting to the washbasin.

“No. We have that handled.” Bucky shook his head.

“Oh?” Ramirez’s stopped, and turned to him, brows knit in confusion.

“Could you sing, Las Mananitas? For my birthday?”

His voice was so small that Steve was almost convinced that Ramirez hadn’t heard him, because, for a long moment, she didn’t make a sound as they stood, facing each other in silence. “It’s been a while, Bucky.”

“I know.” He nodded, his voice no more than a low murmur. “Please?”

At this, Steve looked down, unwilling to intrude upon what was clearly an intimate moment that he had no part in.

Then, without fanfare, introduction, or prelude, Ramirez started to sing. Steve remembered her singing during the Day of the Dead celebration she’d invited him to. It had been a sad song that she’d sung then. This one, while still slow and haunting when sung a capella, was about life, about celebration, about starting a new day with all of its promises and blessings. Steve glanced up only once as Ramirez sang, to catch a glimpse at Bucky’s face. There was nothing immediately telling about the other man’s expression, but there was something tender and soft in his features as if some weight that had been lifted since this morning when Steve had first arrived.

The song ended, and Ramirez cleared her throat, chuckling as she tucked that same errant strand of hair behind her ear. “Thank you, Maggie," Bucky said. “Have a good night. Let me know when you make it back safely, okay?”

“Of course.” She answered, closing the gap between them, went up on tiptoes to give bucky a hug, which he returned and held. “Happy Birthday. Here’s looking at you, old fart.” She chuckled softly.

“Thanks, doll.” Bucky returned in an exchange Steve was almost sure he wasn’t supposed to be witness to.

When they broke apart, Ramirez turned to him. “Steve, thank you so much for letting me intrude on your time. Let me know if you need anything while you’re here, and if I don’t see you before you leave, be safe, and give Sam my best.” She said as she met him in a quick hug.

“Of course. Good night Ramirez.”

“Good night Steve.” She replied, collecting her things.

“Night, Maggie.”

“Good Night, Bucky. Don’t give each other too much of a hard time while I’m gone, all right?”

“No promises with this one,” Bucky said, motioning to Steve with the top of his head.

“Behave you two. Night!” She laughed, waving as she started down the dark path back toward her village.

They stayed silent a moment as they watched her go, Bucky’s eye’s following her down the path until she disappeared from sight. “She going to be okay, walking back by herself?” Steve asked.

“Oh, yeah, she’ll be fine.” He said breathlessly, as he turned to Steve. “Thank you. For making me go talk to her.”

“Of course. I’m glad she agreed to come to have dinner with us tonight.” Steve nodded.

“Me too.”

“So. movie?” Steve asked.

“Actually. Steve.” Bucky began hesitantly. “Dance with me?”

“I’d love to, Buck.” Steve breathed.

“Good. Okay.” He nodded.

“Anything in mind?”

“Only one of my favorites.” He answered, a wry smile twisting at the corner of his mouth.

Moonlight Serenade started over the speakers, and wordlessly, Steve took Bucky in his arms, and they danced. Danced like they had in their shitty apartment back in Brooklyn, danced like they had in stolen moments during the war. They danced in the flickering light of dying coals with no certainty of what tomorrow would bring, and only the knowledge that they loved each other, deeply, unconditionally, and without regard for the rest of the world. As he held Bucky tight, knowing that he could be called away, back to whatever fight that needed to be fought, he was comforted in the knowledge that at the very least they had now. They had tonight. That while everything might not be okay, it seemed like it was going to be. And although he might not be able to be here for him one hundred percent of the time, there were people here that cared deeply for Bucky, people, it seemed, Bucky likewise cared deeply for too, whether or not either of them knew it, yet.